Archive for August, 2010


Truth Thomas’s “Bottle of Life”

(PHOTO: Melanie Henderson) Truth Thomas studied creative writing at Howard Unviersity with Dr. Tony Medina and E. Ethelbert Miller, and earned a M.F.A from New England College in 2008.

It’s “…the language of collard greens and black-eyed peas seasoned with fatback and Big Mama’s sweet tea” was how one writer put it in a blurb. Another writer called its contents “…intoxicatingly sweet, sharp, with a dash of bitter, good for the soul’s health.” A third one noted the poet finds “heaven in his Mama’s macaroni and cheese…”

And I have to agree with them; the food analogies are fitting for Truth Thomas’s Bottle of Life (Flipped Eye Publishing, 2010). Knoxville-born, DC-raised, Thomas brings a streetwise wit and lyricism to his third collection of poems. He’s been compared to Etheridge Knight, Lucille Clifton and Rita Dove the way he chronicles what one writer called “the atrocities of our violent, ‘soiled world.’”

Within these 75 pages Thomas has ended the literary food shortage. Bottle of Life is a Thanksgiving Dinner with all the trimmings. Or it places the reader at the buffet table, with delicious imagery steaming under a heat bulb.

But read each poem again, go through the surface, and the scene morphs into something else; the heat bulb becomes an interrogation lamp. In place of the food are the ugly realities Thomas brings to the surface of his readers’ conscience. Take “Up Growing” for instance, which opens the collection. Aiming the interrogation lamp at the violence, abuse and denial of childhood, Thomas skillfully juxtaposes the ugly with the beautiful:

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

…in “one small
step for man” days,
in Jackson 5, “ABC,”
“Stop the Love you Save”
days, there were no fights,
no duels in bruises.
No stepfathers
ever broke
faces of door frames
to lattice boys in
choke hungry fingers.

Here’s another example of that juxtaposition in the same poem:

Never did a Knoxville,
take-no-shit woman,
scratch the mug
of a 6-foot
cheating husband,
and never
did this wannabe Shaft,
wannabe man,
wrestle a woman
to the ground – not yesterme,
yesteryou, not yesterday –
not on streets where boys
would shadow box
like Muhammad Ali,
and spin,
and shuffle
and float over
girls with names like
Alice Haxton,
or Teresa Youngblood.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Thomas is a former Writer-in-Residence for the Howard County Poetry and Literary Society in Maryland and his work has appeared in many journals and anthologies including the "The 100 Best African American Poems" edited by Nikki Giovanni.

Another theme of this book is war. His poem, “The War is Here,” questions America’s involvement in the so-called “war on terror.” It also alludes to social injustices committed on American soil whether it’s post-Katrina treatment of Gulf Coast residents, or gang violence and child prostitution:

Dial down the swagger in your trigger
finger. The war is here—not over hills,
everywhere. Shots fired in New Orleans,
a community down, please respond. Shots
fired in Bodymore, the unwired down.

…Repeat: insane days
and nights—right here. Little girls who
could be your girls, selling for a dollar in
Harlem, in Chinatown—right now—right
down the street from your 1600 dome.

The ironies Thomas masterfully captures are as bizarre as a trick-mirror image. Here’s a Christmas night robbery on a Baltimore street while “Silver Bells” plays in the background of his poem, “Baltimore: Dressed in Holiday Cheer”:

Walking on Saratoga Street, a gun barrel stops
and asks me for a smoke, and all my money.
“Silver bells, silver bells, it’s Christmas

time in the city…” My fingers fumble through lent
like quicksand in my pockets. Outside my
body, I watch as Andrew Jackson unfolds

in my hand, and rises like Superman’s cape. “City
sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday
style…”
As three windows in King Tut Jewelers

keep watch by night, the handgun flies away,
a trash truck passes, and you ask me, “What
do I recall?”

At times, Bottle of Life could be a 40 ounce poured out on the curb as Thomas remembers those who’ve passed on. Here’s a poem in memory of his friend, Tony.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Dr. Tony Medina, Truth Thomas and Dr. Randall Horton.

A Dynamite Player

Tony was a
dynamite player
blew an alto to bits—
hit notes Bird
forgot to play
or missed—lit
bebop fuses over
P-funk cakes
spooned women
like Chinese food,
would feast
and be hungry
an hour later.
Yes, Tony was
a dynamite player—
had a dynamite gig
left Philly stages
smoking—was
an equal opportunity
fiend—was
every jones like
Chaka Khan was
every woman, and
I wanted to be him—
from his Pork Pie
to his sleep-deprived
keys—‘til he
fell asleep
in a crack pipe
and burned
all the way down
to his reeds.

Thomas is clever. “Villain ‘L’” is a poem that remembers Grammy-award winning singer Jennifer Hudson’s nephew, Julian King, who was shot to death by his father in 2008. The poem’s title is a play on the name of the poetic form, villanelle, in which he wrote the poem:

“Gunshots steal a child, a city is slain./A mother, an aunt, track serial tears./ Your pawns leave the board, take the rap in chains.”

(PHOTO: Marlene Hawthrone Thomas) "Bottle of Life," a celebration of the santity and fragility of life, reaffirms Thomas' arrival as a major new voice in American poetry -- a very necessary one.

Bottle of Life, however, is not entirely what a writer called “an exquisitely crafted urn…” The book has its tender moments in poems like “Love Poem to a Lesbian” and “When Mama Does the Cooking.” Here’s “Night in Topeka”:

“No muted/trumpet/are you,/nor ever/were your/touches/gloved,/your/grooves/outside/the pocket./Solos—/so high/you make me—/happy,/as a pillar/in the/flatlands.”

Bottle of Life is refreshing. I have to agree with another writer on the music woven through this collection. “Each page,” the writer stated, “is like plucking the strings of a bass guitar, but the beat never gets too heavy, the message is always clear, the craft exquisite and masterful.”

I’ll close out with a poem that touched a chord with me and might do the same for anyone whose sibling(s) is(are) currently serving or has served in the armed  forces.

Roller Coaster of Love

We are all strapped in past points of
“no going back,” from moments
wombs welcome us to days. As I
wait on the runway of a roller coaster

with my older brother Andre. I am
reminded of this, although I cannot
help but wonder if this ride they call
Kingda Ka, here at Six Flags, means

“Scared shitless” in another time and
Tongue. But, can a man say “scared”
In a poem? Even when zero becomes
128 miles an hour in 3.5 seconds,

And a hot dog is poised to rise from
a vomit launch pad, in loop de loops,
this is hard for me to say. And so, I
captain silence with an iceberg tongue.

And, as usual, I go along with Andre.
“It’s going to be fun,” he tells me, just
like he did when we used to
smack the asses of cars, to set off

their alarms when we were kids. And
it was fun, until Lucky Thompson’s
father came out with his .44, cussing
holes in summer evening, aiming

at all creation. We had to hide for
twenty-seven days under Mr. Richards’
green Chevy nova—or was it half an
hour? And later, was it an extension

cord or a telephone pole that Daddy
used to build us up on every leaning
side? Andrew never cried, though we
were guilty as roaches in the

refrigerator—not then, or in 2006,
when his right leg met a roadside
bomb in Iraq. He never cried when
nightmares came, and sleep became

a desert storming lead. Even after
years of underbelly unemployment,
he never loosed a sniffle. “Tears are
not the clothes of kings,” he likes to

say—something that he read in a book,
I think, like he reads me now on these
rails. He tells me I should “man up,”
“get tough,” step up my arms in air

of amusement squeals. And I do—as
I am used to doing, all except question
this man, who once would SpongeBob
snot from my nose. But a week from

next Wednesday, when he jumps from
the roof of his 30 story life, and witnesses
say he sailed to earth without a sound,
I will wonder if tears finally came to

ride his cheeks down, just like we were
riding this coaster. I will wonder if he
closed his eyes to wipe them away, and
wish that I could catch that holy water.

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(PHOTO: Yao Hoke Glover) Yao Hoke Glover, Bowie State University professor and former owner of Karibu Books, went to China as part of an exchange program that recruits teachers from the U.S. and Canada. (Click to enlarge photo)

When Yao Hoke Glover recently traveled to China, the 40-year-old didn’t expect his trip to reflect the state of affairs between Asians and African Americans.

He was among 40 educators traveling abroad as part of an exchange initiative while representing elementary, middle, secondary and primary schools in both the U.S. and Canada to train English teachers in China’s Jiangsu province.

While there, the D.C.-based professor stayed in a four-star hotel, saw the sights and taught at various schools throughout the province. The lesson of his trip, however, wasn’t in the 13-day curriculum Glover taught in 10 days. In fact, it didn’t come from the professor himself but from the Chinese in Jiangsu’s cities including Nanjing, Suzhou, Pizhou and Xiangshui.

“One town I was in only had six foreigners and only one of African descent. Yet, they know hip-hop and the face of African American people,” Glover, a Bowie State University professor, said in an interview. He chronicled his 35-day trip, from June 30 to August 5, in a 10-page report for his university. “There is little dialogue beyond the entertainment—kung fu films and Chinese food for us and basketball, hip-hop and Michael Jackson for them.”

Glover’s comments come seven months after the National Urban League led a delegation of African Americans to Beijing China, according to a Feb. 7 press release posted on a politics and culture blog. The purpose of the trip was to engage Chinese and African Americans in a discussion of possible partnerships and investments with each other.

(PHOTO: Yao Hoke Glover) the city of Xiangshui in Jiangsu province. "It is said that 57% of China’s 1.4 billion people still live in rural areas. The small towns are the point of entry for many people into the hustle and bustle of the modern world." --Yao's report.

The National Urban League’s action can be explained in the book The African American Encounter with Japan and China by Marc Gallicchio. “African American interest in world affairs can be traced as far back as the abolitionist movement of the pre-Civil War era. That interest and the resulting desire to shape international events took on a new life when the United States obtained its overseas empire and Europe partitioned Africa,” writes Gallicchio, PhD professor and chairman of the Department of History at Villanova University College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “During the years when much of the world came under the sway of Europe or the descendants of Europeans in the United States, black Americans developed a view of world affairs that drew a connection between the discrimination they faced at home and the expansion of empire abroad.”

(PHOTO: Natasha Luo) Three Gorges Dam

“Black internationalism…was an ideology that stressed the role of race and racism in world affairs,” the professor added. It “…provided African Americans with a comprehensive explanation for world affairs that placed their own experience during one of the darkest moments of their history”—slavery and Jim Crow—“into a global context. It reminded them that they were not alone in the world and that others, indeed the majority of the world’s inhabitants, suffered a similar fate.”

For the Chinese, President Barack Obama’s election sparked their interest in developing ways of doing business and exchanging cultural and educational ideas with African Americans, according to the release. The National Urban League’s mission is an extension of an effort by the Los Angeles Urban League a year before. In 2006, Los Angeles Urban League President and CEO Blair Taylor took a 12-member delegation to China to visit Beijing and Shanghai.

“African-Americans are a force to be reckoned with,” Tung Chee-hwa, chairman of the China-United States Exchange Foundation, was quoted telling the delegates at the 2007 reception. “The Chinese people want to be friends with America. We want to understand African-Americans better and we want for you to understand the Chinese people better. We want to know about your historic Black colleges and universities, corporations, non-government organizations, and the many Black owned newspapers.”

(PHOTO: Natasha Luo) White Emperor City.

Ambassador Liu Guijin, former Special Envoy on African Affairs for the People’s Republic of China, alluded to the Bandung Conference in 1955, which had a twofold goal that included promoting Afro-Asian relations and combating neo-colonialism. “China’s support for Africa can be looked at in three stages,” he was quoted saying. “The first, 1949 to 1978, China built a solidarity with African countries who we felt were justified in their struggle against colonialism. We supported Africa’s economic independence at time when the Chinese people were very poor.”

The ambassador added, “In 1978, China opened its doors and adjusted its foreign policies, encouraging Chinese companies to go to Africa.”

However, Ndubisi Obiorah, a Nigerian human rights lawyer and executive director of the Center for Law and Social Action, noted that the origins of the China-Africa relationship were not a one-way street, with Africa responding to China’s demands. “On the contrary, African individuals and governments of their own motion, initiated contact and sought relations with China,” Obiorah writes in his essay “Rise and Rights in China-Africa Relations.” “African liberation movements sought assistance from China from the 1950s and post-independence leaders such as Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Kenneth Kaunda looked to China for models of political and socio-economic organization as the emergent African states embarked on nation-building in the 1960s.”

(PHOTO: chinaeconomicreview.com) Jiangsu province.

After three decades of reform, China’s considered to be the driving force behind world and regional growth, according to various sources. Ambassador Liu Guijin noted that Chinese finance currently goes to funding large infrastructure projects, including hydro-power generation and railways. “More than 35 African countries are engaging with China on infrastructure finance deals, with the biggest recipients being Nigeria, Angola, Sudan, and Ethiopia,” he said.

Danny Bakewell Sr., chairman of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) and Los Angeles Sentinel newspaper publisher, was among the 40 National Urban League delegates, the press release stated.

At the 2007 reception, Bakewell noted that Chinese officials could utilize the power of America’s black press to directly market to and speak to African Americans–a suggestion the Chinese considered at the time.

But Glover, the Bowie State professor, was on another mission. Unlike the delegation, he didn’t visit China’s giant cities, Shanghai or Beijing. Instead, he traveled through the small towns, which he noted as “a place where history meets the modern.” “It is the sense of civility, the kindness and of course the fascination with the new and unfamiliar that dominated our interaction with the inhabitants of the small towns,” he stated in his report. “The small towns are the point of entry for many people into the hustle and bustle of the modern world.”

(PHOTO: Yao Hoke Glover) Glover with locals in the city of Pizhou. "In our first city we were four of only six foreigners in a city with a population of 1.6 million. People often stopped and stared, others would touch our clothing," Glover said. "A simple walk through the street by the 'foreigners' would often cause locals to request a picture with us."

Glover’s report also noted the significance of studying Chinese language and culture at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, such as Bowie State. “After all the University, as its name suggests, is a place where we must study the universe-all that is known to human beings-on the earth and in the space that surrounds us,” he stated. “China should increasingly become more of a part of our studies and curricula…as a HBCU it is important that we begin to think about cross-cultural connections between our traditional African-American population and the larger world.”

(PHOTO: Lisa Babb of the New York Times) A group of rappers and their audience at the Shelter, a nightclub in Shanghai.

Despite the effort of the National Urban League delegation, Glover noted that the 2007 discussions barely touched the surface on potential benefits for both parties in the Chinese-African American relations.

Another benefit, Glover noted, was that China’s limited perspective of African-American culture outside of entertainment could be a reflection of what’s happening to black people in America. “There are portions of our history and culture that have been consistently negated and ignored by the larger society [America],” he said.

“Many of us [African Americans] are uncertain and uninformed of our own history and culture.” Understanding that, Glover added, “can help bring into perspective how unfamiliar this culture is to the Chinese.”

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(PHOTO: Courtesy of National Museum of African Art) DC-area teens and their workshop facilitators on their last day of the workshop. (Click to enlarge photo.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — After watching a 22-minute film on the hair salons in Ghana, it was quiet in the Sub level 2 lecture hall of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. The screen went blank and the lights were up. Yet no one spoke, just the sounds of teens scribbling in their journals.

Their eyebrows furrowed, their heads rested on their fists. From the looks of their poses, they were mini replicas of the famous sculpture, “The Thinker.”

And like that chiseled man of bronze and marble they, too, were meditative or battling some internal struggle as they tried to identify the filmmaker’s purpose and point of view while examining her techniques. It’s “Flipping the Script: An Introduction to African Cinema.”

This past week, from August 2-6, about 20 DC-area teens (ages 14-17) gathered boardroom-style around several tables pushed together to flip the script on a number of media images used to portray Africans. “We really started, in the beginning, [focusing on] stereotypes and how people look at other people,” Nzingha Kendall, workshop leader, told the youth during the August 6 workshop.  “We had looked at all these Hollywood films and how white Hollywood looks at Africans and the African continent.”

The teen media literacy workshop is among the museum’s outreach initiatives. The National Museum of African Art also offers hands-on workshops, performing arts, teacher training workshops, storytelling, lectures and interactive sites. The education department is also a source of curriculum materials on Africa and African art for local schools.

Nicole Shivers, the museum’s education specialist, noted that this was the first year for the teen media literacy workshop. She said, “I just wanted to facilitate a week-long series of workshops introducing young people to African Cinema.”

That tradition started in the ‘60s when African filmmakers fought against the colonial portrayal of African people as uncultured people, according to various sources of the art form. Social and political themes dominate African cinema instead of commercial interests. Shivers said she would love to do the workshop next year, adding, “it’s just a matter of funding.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

When Esther Iverem, founder and editor of Seeingblack.com, heard about the teen media literacy workshop, she called it a noble effort on the museum’s part. “Any comprehensive effort to educate the public about African film  is great,” said Iverem, a former staff writer for the Washington Post, New York Newsday and the New York Times.

She’s written about black film online for 10 years. She noted that people are still unaware of Africa’s film industry. “Many of us still don’t realize…that some of our most creative storytellers are telling stories from that continent,” said Iverem, who’s also a contributing critic for Tom Joyner’s BlackAmericaWeb.com. “The fact that young people can get this knowledge means that those young people will have a leg up in appreciating the diversity of narrative.”

Flipping the script, in rap battles,  involves an emcee taking his opponent’s words and using them against him. That same concept, applied through group discussions on topics raised in the film, teaches youth, like Norris Sydnor and Johnna Moore, how to gain control in the dialogue about them that’s dominated by powerful people who don’t look like them.

(PHOTO: Africa World Press Books)

Sydnor, 16, who noted he wasn’t a big talker before the group discussions, noticed a change in his behavior. “During the week…I’ve participated in the discussions on what we saw in the movies,” he said. “I saw everybody contributing and I didn’t want to be the only one not contributing.”

The discussions had a different effect on Moore, 15. After watching a movie earlier that week about a mixed race boy, she recalled the dialogue on skin color among African Americans being an emotional one. In the movie, “He [the boy] had problems knowing that he was lighter” than his black peers, Moore said. “There was a scene in the movie where he was putting his mother’s foundation on to make himself darker.”

Kendall and Richard Collins, who also coordinated the workshop, flipped the script to offer another perspective. Kendall said, “We’ve seen there’s a difference in the way that Africans are portrayed when shot by themselves.”

During the last workshop on August 6, Kendall showed “Me Broni Ba” by Akosua Adoma Owusu, a Virginia born Ghanaian filmmaker and artist. The documentary opens with shots of hair salons in Kumasi, Ghana. Airbrushed signs of popular U.S. rappers sporting various haircuts are outside barbershops. On the exterior wall of the salon are airbrushed replicas of women in African American hair magazines. Several shots show women practicing hair braiding on discarded white baby dolls from the West. The film’s title, me broni ba, is an Akan term of endearment that means “my white baby.”

Owusu noted her travels to her home country as the inspiration for the film. “When I started going back to Ghana, I was just so fascinated by these hair salon signs that were painted so differently,” she said, noting it was an art form disappearing because of photography and other advancements in art technology. “A lot of people aren’t painting these signs anymore,” Owusu said. “So I wanted to document them.”

(PHOTO: The Robert Flaherty Film Seminar) Akosua Adoma Owusu is a Virginia-born Ghanaian filmmaker and artist. Inspired by her bi-national identity and West African griot folklore, she uses auteur filmmaking style to insert herself in the tradition of African storytelling.

The teen media literacy workshop gave Kephren Pondexter and Nailah Penic, both aspiring filmmakers, a way to advance their craft. “It’s a nice way for me to go back and feed information to my classmates and my teacher, and to be ahead of the game,” said Pondexter, 15.

Penic, who agreed, can’t wait to tell her friends at school what she did over the summer. “I’ll tell them that while they were at water parks, amusement parks and concerts… I had a great time just being here and experiencing African films,” the 14-year-old said. Thinking ahead, she added: “It’s going to look good on my high school transcripts that I’m sending to colleges.”

Collins and Shivers watched as the teens savored their last day together. This past week, they’ve flipped the script on how they communicate with one another. At first shy and hesitant to speak during the group discussions, the teens had taken down their walls and formed new friendships. “It was great to see the students open up the dialogue more with each other as the workshop progressed,” said Collins, who served as museum contact and was responsible for recruiting and screening all of the students that participated.

Shivers echoed Collins’s sentiment. She smiled after hearing two aspiring filmmakers talk about using what they’ve learned from the workshop in their own projects. “You don’t really know the impact,” Shiver said. “You always hope something will resonate and stay with them as they grow.”

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