Archive for August, 2011


(PHOTO: DC Creative Writing Workshop) Kiana Murphy got a full scholarship to University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Full disclosure: I’m the senior program director for the DC Creative Writing Workshop. We’re always bragging about our students. The article below features the story of one of our writing club members, Kiana Murphy, who’s got a bright future ahead of her.

Given the educational hurdles in her neighborhood, Kiana Murphy’s had to overcome a lot to make it to her first semester at the University of Wisconsin-Madison this fall. But, with the help of the DC Creative Writing Workshop, she not only accomplished that feat, but did so while securing a full scholarship.

Attaining that goal alone might seem unlikely, given the grim statistics that marked Kiana and others like her. Those educational hurdles include the 16 percent high school dropout rate for 16-19 year-olds, “substantially higher than the district average of 10.1 percent,” according to recent data on Ward 8, which encompasses Kiana’s Congress Heights neighborhood.

The Social Justice Center at Georgetown University, which collected the info on Ward 8, also found that “one third (34 percent) of Ward 8’s population over 25 did not have a high school diploma, which was about average for the District.”

Additionally, 7 percent of residents don’t even have a 9th grade education, and the Median Annual Income is $32,348, according to recent statistics. These conditions are a result of poor schools and lack of access to educational resources such as decent school books and functional libraries.

Yet, despite these hurdles, Kiana made her dreams of higher education possible. It started when she joined the Workshop’s after-school writing club in 2005. “Writing Club is a true, life-changing experience. It helped me to express feelings so powerful that they scare even me sometimes,” according to Kiana’s essay on her experiences with the Workshop.

(IMAGE: writingforward.com)

In writing club, Kiana and her peers read and gave critical responses to works of writers from various cultures and periods.

She wrote her own poems while mastering literary devices and learning new vocabulary. “I am grateful that Writing Club has become such an important part of my life,” Kiana writes.

In 2007, Kiana was among the seven students hired through the Workshop’s youth employment program, helping students resist the lure of the streets.

As a young-writer-in-residence, she assisted the writers-in-residence by providing extra support for classroom management and helping with other administrative duties. “I have had such a great time in this program—new people, new places, and a whole new life of words, stanzas, and emotions,” writes Kiana, who went on to win the Parkmont Poetry Contest.

She was also part of the Workshop’s drama club, which creates original adaptations of classical plays by reading the texts and rewriting them line by line before the Workshop brings in a professional director to help them rehearse and perform their works on a stage for the community.

During her time in the writing club, Kiana excelled in her classes to become the valedictorian at Hart and again at her high school, Friendship Collegiate Academy.

(PHOTO: DC Creative Writing Workshop) Kiana at this year’s premier of the Workshop’s “Notorious P.Y.G.”

Prior to graduating, Kiana was among five students from her high school to win a Posse Scholarship, which covers the cost of books, tuition, and her room and board at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The scholarship’s process—that entailed her being nominated by the school dean and sitting through three intense interviews with Posse reps—was a grueling one.

Kiana, who sought and received her Posse Scholarship letter of recommendation from the Workshop, was up against more than 1,000 other DC students for the scholarship.

But, like the hurdles in her community, she overcame the process because she had to. “This is an opportunity to get out of DC and be in a different atmosphere,” she said, during a Dec. 23, 2010, interview on FOX 5 News.

Her goals? “I’m looking at going into Psychology and English, specifically Clinical Psychology,” she told Fox 5 News. “I want to help others because growing up in my neighborhood I was exposed to a lot of things.”

Earlier this year, a gunman shot and killed Raheem Jackson, a 16-year-old student at Woodson High, just outside of Kiana’s apartment in the 1300 block of Congress Street. There have been six shootings on Kiana’s block so far this year, three of them fatal. But, like everything else, she overcame those situations and is looking forward to a bright future.

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

If you ask, Kiana’ll tell you the DC Creative Writing Workshop kept her from being a negative statistics.

“It’s made me stronger in another way, too. I am now able to speak out loud and say what I’m thinking without any fear,” writes the young woman, who’s secure in being her own person with her own opinions.

“I would also like to thank my writing instructors for helping me to find out who I am, figure out my goals, and plan my route to the future,” Kiana continued.

“Now I know why I’m here: to strive for the best, succeed in life, and do remarkable things to change the world.”

For those interested in donating to the DC Creative Writing Workshop, Please visit our website at http://dccww.org and click the “Donate Now Through Network for Good” button.

(IMAGE: Courtesy of Heinemann)

The fight scenes from the Rocky movie series were brutal. Whether taking on Apollo Creed, Mr. T or Drago, the match resulted in the men beating each other beyond recognition.

I remember the men’s eyes swollen shut, the bloody tissue stuck out of busted noses while corner men fixed up the fighters. I also remember the fighters limping around the ring, throwing tired punches—their bodies worn from the physical abuse.

Even still, those brutal fight scenes appear as mere child’s play, compared to the no-holds-barred verbal brawl between Okot p’Bitek’s speakers in Song of Lawino & Song of Ocol.

Lawino and her husband, Ocol, both of the Acholi people in Northern Uganda and South Sudan, are in a fight between traditional and modern ways. In that sense, the conflict between Okot p’Bitek’s speakers touches on a common issue of married African couples around the time p’Bitek published Song of Lawino & Song of Ocol (1967).

During those times, the husbands, who once loved and adored their wives, despised them once they surpassed their wives’ level of education. These men, whose broadened horizons resulted from their travels abroad, returned to their countries with a sense of superiority, scorning what they saw as the “out-of-touch” ways of their wives and people.

Ocol’s treatment of Lawino is no different. After ridiculing his wife for what he perceives as her ignorance, both speakers knuckle up, metaphorically. Both parties’ words pack punches that even leaves the reader winded and dazed.

As a traditionalist, one way Lawino dismisses the modern ways is in the poem “I Do Not Know The Dances of White People,” in which Lawino uses dance as a form of commentary. “I am ignorant of the dance of/ foreigners/ And how they dress/ I do not know,” she tells Ocol. “I cannot dance the rumba,/ My mother taught me/ The beautiful dance of Acoli […]/ I cannot dance the samba!”[1]

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

The physical details here are even more striking: “When the drums are throbbing/ And the black youths/ Have raised much dust/ You dance with vigour and/ health […]/ When the daughter of the Bull/ Enters the arena/ She does not stand here/ Like stale beer that does not / sell,/ She jumps here/ She jumps there./ When you touch her/ She says ‘Don’t touch me!’[2]

The throbbing drums, the “raised…dust ”and “the daughter of the Bull” jumping “here” and “there” intensifies the Acoli dances’ liveliness and free-spirited nature. It also intensifies the speaker’s excited tone.

Lawino’s use of humor jabs at Ocol here: “the daughter of the Bull/ […] does not stand here/ Like stale beer that does not/ sell.” Lawino’s humor also jabs at European dances, which pale in comparison. She fires away again:  “I cannot dance the ballroom/ dance./ Being held so tightly/ I feel ashamed […]/ Women lie on the chests of men […]/ Women throw their arms/ Around the necks of their / partners […]/ Men hold the waist of the/ women/ Tightly, tightly . . .[3]

That the European dances require women “being held so tightly” and laying their heads “on the chests of men” only reinforces Lawino’s belief that the European culture men like Ocol impose on their wives is another way of former colonizers continuing their oppression of African people.

And on the topic of old-fashioned vs. contemporary, that conflict isn’t restricted to only couples in developing countries. That conflict also exists here among American couples who debate over issues ranging from child rearing (to beat or not to beat, that is the question) and sexual preferences (anal vs. vaginal, oral vs. none, missionary position vs. something new), to dating habits (man pays vs. going Dutch) and a spouse’s employment preference for the other (stay-at-home vs. a career).

(PHOTO: 3D Photo)

While the speaker’s excited, hurt and disappointed tones jab in “I Do Not Know The Dance of White People,” Lawino’s right hooks fly in “The Woman With Whom I Share My Husband.”

She throws punches at both Ocol and his mistress, Clementine: “Brother, when you see/ Clementine!/ The beautiful one aspires/ To look like a white woman.”[4]

And that’s just the set up before she unleashes these striking physical details: “Her lips are red-hot/ Like glowing charcoal, She resembles the wild cat/ That has dipped its mouth in/ blood,/ Her mouth is like raw yaws/ It looks like an open ulcer/ […]Tina dust powder on her face/ And it looks so pale;/ She resembles the wizard/ Getting ready for the midnight/ dance.”[5] Ouch!

That Clementine “resembles the wizard/ Getting ready for the midnight/ dance” means that Ocol’s shallow desire for this woman will hurt him in the long run. Lawino’s tone is condescending when she reduces Ocol to something caught and devoured by the woman who “resembles the wild cat” with its “mouth in/ blood.” Those lines are also Lawino foreshadowing that since the chase is over, Clementine will toss Ocol into a pile of playthings that once amused her, but were now boring.

The psychological details are just as striking: “The smell of carbolic soap/ Makes me sick,/ And the smell of powder/ Provokes the ghosts in my head;/ […] The ghost-dance drum must/ sound/ The ghost be laid/ And my peace restored.”[6]

Those details intensify Lawino’s sardonic tone sparked by Ocol’s desire for a woman with “powder on her face,” a woman pale enough to resemble “the wizard/ Getting ready for the midnight/ dance.” That Lawino likens the powder on Clementine to “ash-dirt,” which represents death and decay (“ashes to ashes, dust to dust”), she finds it ludicrous that Ocol could love someone so flaccid and lifeless.

(PHOTO: stock image)

A musical moment in that line is the recurring “mouth”: “[…] mouth in/ blood,/ Her mouth […]/ […] looks like an open ulcer.” The repeated mouth, followed by “in/ blood” and its comparison to “an open ulcer” only intensifies the foreshadowed heartache Clementine will bring upon Ocol.

Lawino’s striking physical details of Clementine’s appearance mirroring the European standard of beauty raises this question to Ocol: how can you embrace a culture that’s taught you self-hate?

Unable, or unwilling, to face Lawino’s question and warnings, Ocol becomes frustrated. He comes out swinging (“Woman/ Shut up!/ Pack your things/ Go!”[7]), which only confirms Lawino’s portrait of him. Any empathy towards him on the reader’s part is lost in the first chapter of “Song of Ocol” (“Woman/ Shut up!/ Pack your things/ Go!”)

But to hear him tell it, he’s the victim of the backward ways of his wife, ethnic group and the continent. It’s that feeling of betrayal, Ocol seeing his traditions as a hindrance to becoming successful in the white man’s world, which sparks his tones that are at times disgusted, patronizing and scornful.

And though his physical details that follow are striking, Ocol unwittingly incriminates himself. He loses his credibility as a victim by reducing Lawino’s anger and hurt to “the confused noise/ Made by the ram/ After the butcher’s knife/ Has sunk past/ The wind pipe,/ Red paint spraying/ On the grasses.”[8] Blinded by his disdain for his wife and culture, Ocol can’t see that if Lawino’s “the ram,” he’s “the butcher’s knife/ […] sunk past/ The wind pipe.”

(PHOTO: online composite sketch archive)

Reading those lines, I thought of the male outcries against women writers such as Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange and recently Sapphire, who presented less flattering portraits of African-American men.

The Black men accused these women of conspiring with White society’s attempt to continue demonizing Black men. And just as those men did with Walker, Shange and Sapphire, Ocol dismisses Lawino’s reality as mere fantasy and myth.

Clementine and European culture did a number on Ocol. He hates his people and the continent, what he called: the “Idle giant/ Basking in the sun,/ Sleeping, snoring,/ Twitching in dreams;/ Diseased with a chronic illness,/ Choking with black ignorance,/ Chained to the rock/ Of poverty,/ And yet laughing,/ Always laughing and dancing,/ The chains on his legs/ Jangling.”[9]

These thoughts of Africa (“Diseased with a chronic illness,/ Choking with black ignorance”) are not Ocol’s, but that of the European culture he embraces.

That Africa basks “in the sun” all day, “sleeping, snoring” and “twitching in dreams”; that it’s “always laughing and dancing” evokes the Coon image of Black men that dominated American movies and television during the early 20th century. The Coon is a character type that reinforces America’s stereotype of Black men as big, lazy children that would rather play than face responsibilities. (And that image hasn’t gone away. The media redressed that image for today’s movies and TV show sitcoms.)

Ocol’s words, in that context, make him a Tom, a character type also popular in 20th century films and television. The Tom image reinforces America’s stereotype of Black people who think Whites can do no wrong. Everything the White man has, the saying goes, the Toms got to have it. Lawino alluded to this earlier when she raised the question to Ocol: how can you embrace a culture that’s taught you self-hate?

(PHOTO: Ben+Sam)

When Okot p’Bitek published Song of Lawino & Song of Ocol in 1967, I don’t think he knew its relevance to the struggles of marginalized Americans.
At its heart, the conflict between Lawino and Ocol—old-style vs. what’s current—is really about education: those without access to proper resources vs. those privileged to have them.

In that context, Lawino’s a spokesperson for those disadvantaged because of poor schools, mediocre teachers and lack of decent books.
And Ocol’s a representative of those fortunate and privileged enough to excel in better learning environments.

While reading this book, I couldn’t help wondering what if Ocol had shared with Lawino what he learned from his travels instead of ridiculing her. And, if “education is a better safeguard of liberty,”[10] as a late politician and educator once put it, wouldn’t it have served Ocol to use the former colonizers’ tools against them instead of continuing that oppression on his wife and people? I think so.

However, Ocol’s disdain for his wife and ethnic customs make it difficult for him to see the error of his ways. He’s too busy throwing verbal hooks and uppercut, comparing Lawino’s lament to the “rotting buffalo/ Left behind by Fleeing poachers,/ Its nose blocked/ with house-flies/ Suckling bloody mucus,/ The eyes/ Two lumps of green-flies/ Feasting on crusts/ Of salty tears,/ Maggots wallowing/ In the pus/ In the spear wounds.”[11]

Ocol unwittingly sets himself up, again. If Lawino’s cries are the “rotting buffalo,” then Ocol’s added insult to injury are the house-flies in her nose. His insults are the “green-flies/ Feasting on” Lawino’s tears, and the “Maggots wallowing” in her wounds.

At its heart, Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino & Song of Ocol is a story about irony that arises in Ocol’s superiority complex because of his advanced education. That’s the irony the late historian Will Durant alluded to, when he said, “Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.”[12]


[1] Okot p’Bitek, Song of Lawino & Song of Ocol, Portsmouth: Heinemann Educational Publishers, 1967, 42.

[2] Ibid., 42-43

[3] Ibid., 44

[4] Ibid., 37

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 121

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 125

[10] Edward Everett, Brainy Quote, 2001-2011, http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/topics/topic_education.html (August 2011)

[11] Op.Cite, 124

[12] Op.cite.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Ernesto Mercer

Depending how one might see it, the 20th century could be something most folks around the world wouldn’t mind watching go up in smoke. For starters, there were two World Wars, Nazi death camps, the Great Depression and Vietnam.

In the great ol’ U-S-of-A alone, we had the Trail of Tears, Jim Crow, Klansmen and lynching. And if those weren’t enough, the assassinations of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and John F. Kennedy also dot that century’s timeline of atrocities.

With his Gunpowder + A Match (outbackintheshack + Carolina Jones Ink, 2011), Ernesto Mercer aims to make sure the 20th century sizzles for his global brothers and sisters.

This limited-run collection is a chapbook, meaning it’ll have nearly 40 pages and either be saddle stitched or stapled along the folded spine. It’s the oldest form of publishing that goes back for centuries. It’s an affordable way that helped writers get their work out.

These publications range from inexpensive productions to handmade editions that sell for hundreds of dollars. The inexpensive productions (between $5 and $10) helped Mercer get out his earlier work. (Read his poem “THE BEG.”) And this time around, he enlisted the help of a friend to run off a limited batch from her copier.

Poet Randall Horton, a professor and publisher, can’t wait for his copy. “I have been waiting to read something from Ernesto for a minute now,” he said. Horton’s among the writers interviewed for this story, who haven’t read Gunpowder + A Match. All each writer has to go on is Mercer’s earlier work they either heard at readings or read in literary journals and anthologies.

Horton first read Mercer’s work as an editor for the literary journal Tidal Basin Review. “I have been a big fan since,” he said of the work he published, noting that Mercer’s right on time with Gunpowder + A Match.

(PHOTO: Ernesto Mercer)

What Horton found engaging about Mercer’s work was that it stimulated on multiple levels.

“If you are a fan of Adrian Castro”—the Afro-Latino poet, performer and interdisciplinary artist—“then you are going to love what Ernesto does on the page,” Horton said. “Ernesto is coming from many traditions.”

Among them is Mercer’s practice as a priest in the Cuban tradition of Palo, a religion developed by Central African slaves brought to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Santo Domingo. Those slaves, mostly of Bantu lineage, created a belief system that respected ancestral spirits and nature’s powers.

Those slaves and their belief system also inspired Mercer’s title Gunpowder + A Match. According to the religious practice, the soil, sticks, bones and other “natural objects” are believed to have spiritual powers. During the main ceremony, according to various sources, a priest places those items inside a sacred vessel.

And only the spirits of the dead, which dwell in those vessels, or Nganga, guide all religious activities performed with the Nganga.

In Spanish, the tradition’s known as “La Reglas Bantu” (“The Bantu Rule” in English). Among its several branches are the Mayombe (the oldest) and Brillumba. Mercer’s a Mayombe priest with rights in Brillumba. As a Mayombero, with 23 years in the religions, he’s the priest of Nsasi—the god of lightning, fire and explosions among other things.

(PHOTO: Ernesto Mercer)

Where the title Gunpowder + A Match fits into all of this is the intense healing ceremony that requires Mercer using gunpowder to draw intricate patterns on the ground. “These designs are usually only seen by initiates and those who seek the healing of Mayombe,” he told me in a recent interview.

Due out in September, what Mercer called “a nice-sized plate of poems” will be available to everyone, not just initiates. It’ll be available for those seeking a healing from their 20th century wounds that, for many, resulted from the rise of illegal drug trades both globally and in America’s urban neighborhoods.

The remnants of that 20th century era, for many, are the loved ones still strung out on or that died from crack and heroin. Mercer raises the issue in “e-FLAT BOOGIE,” a poem from Gunpowder + A Match, in which the speaker is a ninth grader digging on M, an older sister of a former classmate.

“Every dude/ loved M + she/ knew it,” Mercer’s speaker says in “e-FLAT BOOGIE.” M’s a ‘hood honey who uses what she’s got, and takes advantage of the speaker’s feelings by telling, instead of asking, him “to walk her to/ the store.” To which the speaker’s accommodating.

On their way, Mercer’s speaker is confronted by some unsavory elements of the drug game, in which the speaker likens the dealers to pimps: “& even with/ Star Crystal &/ Mary Jane/”–cocaine, crystal meth and reefer (or weed)–”working right/ across the street/ the guys still/ hated me anyway/ walking with M.” And fortunately for the speaker, the hate didn’t go beyond the dealers’ angry stares.

(PHOTO: Mignonette E. Dooley) younger Ernesto Mercer

Gunpowder + A Match will also be available for those curious about Mercer’s whereabouts for the last decade. It was the poet’s attempt to heal himself while he figured some things out about love, lust, loss, anger and fear. “I hope readers follow me through a few obsessions, ruminations and preoccupations,” Mercer said. “I hope they are willing to wander with me through the vagaries of my voice and voices.”

That journey resulted from the poet almost losing his voice around 1999. At that time, Mercer stopped publishing consistently after completing his third fellowship with the Cave Canem summer retreat for writers of African descent. He published poems here and there in literary journals and anthologies until his responsibilities took over.

At the time, his hands were full, working as a welfare case manager in DC. Additionally, Mercer was seven years into a 14-year apprenticeship to be a Mayombe priest, learning Creole while studying plants and herbs, along with chanting, dancing, divination and more from his priest-teachers.

Even still, he thought about poetry a lot and where he was going with his. “I discovered that I could not write the way I heard the poems in my head,” he said. The job and his apprenticeship (which had him bouncing between DC, the Bronx and Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood on the weekends) made that difficult.

That’s when Mercer knew he’d have to do something about the outside demands sapping his creativity. “Over that time,” he said, “I’d write for myself and challenge myself.”

And given that the playwright, poet and essayist Jay Wright and the African Diaspora influenced Mercer’s older poems, Sharan Strange got excited at the news of Gunpowder + A Match. “The title of the collection is provocative,” said the senior lecturer in Spelman College’s English department.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

Strange can’t wait to read Mercer’s new collection. “I’m expecting that he wants to provoke, perhaps even explode the usual responses to his work, or address some smoldering issues in this contemporary sociocultural moment.” She added, “I hope the community will be open to the work, engage it, and talk back.”

Challenging himself, Ernesto Mercer reemerged in the arts scene with three performances at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of African Art that included a libretto for Ayo Ngozi’s “Fela 70” and two productions with his long-time collaborator and partner Tosha Grantham in “The River Never Rests/Man Unda Wata” and “Nnandi and the Hunter’s Shirt.”

And just when it seemed he got his rhythm back, Mercer almost lost it again around 2009. He’d sent some poems to an interested publisher, thinking his work would reach a larger audience.

Instead, they sat on a shelf, collecting dust. “Sometimes it seems that folks like or want my work, and then don’t know what to do with it,” Mercer said. Of that time, he added, “I don’t hear or know what happens to my work sometimes.”

It didn’t take Mercer long, however, to hear something after regaining his work from the publisher and sharing them at readings. “I kept getting asked by audience members and fellow poets: ‘Where can I get these poems?’” he said. And with that enthusiasm, the poet knew what he had to do.

Since the announcement posted two weeks ago on various blogs, it created an ongoing buzz among writers. “As with any poet who has shown skillful and harmonious eclecticism…I am certainly paying attention to how and where Mercer guides me in his collection,” said Ashaki M. Jackson, a social psychologist and poet residing in Southern California.

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Ernesto Mercer)

“As a writer who is generally impatient in life, I’d also enjoy seeing what a meditative writer has to offer through his exploration of self in the world, in others, in spirit, in love, and in other spaces.”

Jackson noted that Gunpowder + A Match will be part of a recent wave of fresh writing from poets of color. It’s the result of organizations such as Cave Canem, Kundiman, VONA and Callaloo—literary institutions of color using their skills and resources to help marginalized writers.

Mercer’s new collection is also, for Jackson, “an important part of what should be an increasingly consistent stream of publications from these writing communities.”

The social psychologist and poet hoped Gunpowder + A Match will be a strand woven into both the national and international literary fabric. Mercer’s voice, according to Jackson, “is one that resonates at the street-level and the God-level.”

Derrick Weston Brown, who recently read with Mercer at Busboys and Poets’ Sunday Kind of Love reading series, agreed. “His poems are unlike anyone else’s, and that’s the good thing,” said the educator and poet-in-residence at the 14th and V streets Busboys and Poets. “His voice and his subject matter are distinct. They come from an older D.C.”

And while that era’s fondly remembered by lifelong residents for the abundance of black-owned businesses and tighter communities, it also had its negative elements. Going back to “e-FLAT BOOGIE,” Mercer’s poem is a portrait of a DC, where prostitution once defined 12th and 14th streets NW: “too many girls/ on 14th St so/ 12th & Que/ got to be the Ho/ Stroll extended,” according to Mercer’s speaker.

And though M, the ’round-the-way honey, was known for “cussing/ out bamas for/ 4 hot blocks,” she’s still a lady. So much so that the speaker places her above those on the stroll. For him, M wasn’t just an object of attraction, but a mentor.

(ARTWORK: Jermaine Rogers) Afro Punk art

The way he’s treated by M informs how he treats her baby sister S, who he knows was “crushing on” him. “I could tell M/ liked the way I/ was carrying it,” according to Mercer’s speaker, “just let her hang/ a thing I’d picked/ up from M herself/ how she’d say/ to walk her to/ the store…”

While walking to the store, M asks the speaker about his new school. The speaker tells her he’s “thinking/ about getting/ a Mohawk &/ joining this band.” Mercer gives the reader another glimpse of the negative elements from the “older DC” when they hit Logan Circle: “we/ could see bumper to/ bumper on the/ inner & outer lanes/…all slow riding/ to check the girls.”

That’s the D.C. poet-in-residence Derrick Weston Brown learned about after moving there in 2001 for grad school. That year, the Charlotte, North Carolina-native stumbled upon the tail-end of Mercer’s Afroche reading series and workshop at the now-defunct Kaffa House, once in the 1200 block of U Street NW.

After hearing about Mercer for the first time, Brown unsuccessfully tried to hunt down a copy of The Black Rooster Social Inn, an anthology that included poems from Mercer, Brandon Johnson, Joel Dias-Porter (DJ Renegade), Renée Stout and Gary Copeland Lilley—all of whom made up the “Black Rooster Collective.”

Brian Gilmore’s also from the “older DC.” The poet and public interest lawyer noted that Mercer’s been M.I.A. for a while, and hoped that Gunshot + A Match will change that.

“Hopefully, this will mean he will be out and about with the poets somewhere for a minute,” said Gilmore, who’s known Mercer since the late 80s. “It is always a big deal when Ernesto puts out work or performs,” Gilmore said of that time.

Of Mercer’s new chapbook, the poet and public interest lawyer said, “I am just anxious to read the work and experience it as always.” Gilmore added, “He is going to take you somewhere and it is not where you think you are going either.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Ernesto Mercer)

And Ernesto Mercer’s aware of how that might affect some readers. “There’s a lot that folks won’t like in here,” he said. “But I’ll let some of that be a surprise. There’s enough stuff in the poems to get me shanked.”

Though Mercer’s from another time, the poet-in-residence Derrick Weston Brown said, “His spirit is young, and so the poems have vitality and urgency.”

Brown noted that both qualities were essential to preserving the history of a city whose demographic is rapidly changing. “His poems make the reader remember as well as be mindful of the community that exists and is ignored at the same time,” Brown said.

Gunpowder + A Match will make up for what Brown couldn’t hunt down his first year in D.C. “I get a second chance to hold a physical collection of Ernesto’s newest work,” he said.

Those interested in snatching up Mercer’s new collection can pre-order their copies from PayPal (read Ernesto’s 4 easy steps to pre-ordering GUNPOWDER + A MATCH), or from Mercer himself (either in-person or through his Facebook page). “When they’re all gone, they’re all gone,” Mercer said, noting that neither he nor his partner is trying to be a publisher.

“No reprints and no reruns. This is it and out,” said the man who’s currently busy preparing with a band for an evening performance in the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art’s exhibit “Artists in Dialogue 2: Sandile Zulu and Henrique Oliveira.”

The performance, “Match + Wood,” takes place Oct. 22. “I’m back,” Mercer said, ready to travel the country with his Mojo-swagger.

“I’ll ride the Chinatown buses up and down the Coast, read at open mics—featured or not, known or unknown—and, as I did when I was younger, have my chapbooks in my bag.” Oh, he’s back, alright. And, according to Mercer, “That word is bond.”

Two Year Blogiversary!

(PHOTO: Piero Sierra)

Today marks the second anniversary for Alan W. King’s Blog. Last year’s anniversary came and went silently. I wanted to do something different this year.

When I thought about writing an anniversary post, the idea seemed good. I would retell the story about the circumstances that led to me blogging, how the blog’s evolved since then from only having articles to including essays and even a short story. I wanted to write about the benefits of blogging, but I already wrote that and everything else in the earlier post.

Well, not everything. My benefits go beyond an invitation to speak as a panelist on cultural issues. They go beyond serving as a consultant to a journalism grad student preparing for a class presentation on communications and social media. They go beyond me having a platform for my ideas and reporting stories below the mainstream media’s radar.

(PHOTO: allposters.com)

While I’m grateful for those opportunities, I’m even more grateful for the film school student, foster teens, and DC public school students and libraries — all of whom benefited from the outpouring of readers moved to give their time, money and books to worthy causes. The benefits include the blogging communities I’ve found both here on WordPress and in a blogging group recently started on Facebook.

I still pinch myself when I remember a DC soul singer requesting to be profiled after reading and following this blog. Every time her songs came up shuffled on my iPod, I couldn’t help thinking, “I actually profiled this amazing artist!” And a look into the archives shows she’s not the only amazing artists I’ve had the pleasure to write about.

Additionally, the benefits of blogging are you, dear readers — some strangers, friends and family members. Thanks to the people I met in-person, who appreciated the topics addressed here. I’m grateful for your trusts, which I don’t take lightly. Thank you for reading, and then sharing my articles and essays on Facebook, Twitter, email, etc.

Thank you for carrying my words farther than this blog could take them. As I’m writing this, my blog is at 25,337 hits. Since I’ve started, you helped me average about 1,000 hits a month — something that was good to mention in my resumes and cover letters to potential employers in the new media industry.

The average monthly hit count answered their questions about my ability to drive traffic to a blog using social network websites, and my familiarity with Web Analytical Tools to track that traffic. Thank you for the ongoing lesson in accountability. With every issue covered here, I tried to write about them, responsibly.

(ARTWORK: zazzle.com)

Recently, independent online media sources started picking up my posts published here. So, here’s a shout-out to those social media gurus on twitter for extending their platform: @contemplation (for “The Literary Daily”), @punchj (“Punch’s Library Daily”), @FarhanDanish (“The Blogs Daily”) and @IMPACTHIRING_BR (“IMPACTHIRING SOLUTIONS.COM”).

In January, the WordPress staff crunched the numbers to check this blog’s overall health for 2010. And, according to them, “the Blog-Health-o-Meter” read: “Wow.” Thank you for ensuring the overall health of this blog and for a wonderful two years!

What Gets Lost In Pseudonyms

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

Nearly two years ago, I was laid off from my job as a staff writer for a black-owned newspaper in Baltimore. I didn’t cry or worry about my finances.

I gathered my stuff quietly. (My co-workers didn’t know then they wouldn’t see me again.) Once in the back parking lot, I jumped for joy. No more working nearly 12 hour-days for eight hours’ pay. No more being forced to work over the weekend with no compensation.

I called and broke the news to family and friends, one of whom suggested I start this blog. “Build your own archive, yo,” that friend told me then. And even before my first post went up, I knew it was important to blog under my real name.

I couldn’t have known then that a job I took at the DC Creative Writing Workshop as a substitute writer-in-residence would turn into a senior program director position. At the time, I was on various job sites still trying to find work in communications.

My blog became a portfolio I sent potential employers to by mentioning it on my résumé and cover letters. It kept me current, which is what communications professionals want. This blog was my answer to the ubiquitous question: So what have you done during your unemployment?

Blogging anonymously would have killed my credibility as a journalist. And that decision affects just about every sector, including nonprofits. On her blog post “Shine While Your Light’s On: How to Build Your Personal Brand by Starting a Blog,” Rosetta Thurman elaborated on the benefits of blogging under her name.

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

“I thought about blogging anonymously at first…But being anonymous would have defeated the entire purpose of blogging for personal branding,” wrote Thurman, who worked in the nonprofit community for more than eight years as a fundraising professional and leadership development practitioner.

Blogging under her name gave Thurman a reputation that, even four years since she started her blog, still speaks for her when she’s not around.

She recounted a story about a holiday party she went to on a December night in 2009. “I’m an extreme introvert, so I really don’t like going to parties unless I think that someone I know will be there,” Thurman recalled. “The biggest benefit of being a popular blogger, though, is that now when I go to nonprofit events, people know me. I don’t have to know them.”

She added, “And the best thing you can do for your nonprofit career is to make sure lots of people know who you are.” Thurman’s reputation spoke loudly enough for her four years ago to make it possible for her to start Thurman Consulting, an education company that specializes in leadership, entrepreneurship and social media initiatives. That reputation’s allowed her to become an author, trainer, speaker and coach.

Her life might have been different if she blogged anonymously. “If no one knew who was writing the articles, I would have reaped absolutely no benefit to my professional reputation,” Thurman wrote. It was also about courage for her. “I had to learn how to stand up for my ideas no matter what people said about me,” she wrote. “That’s part of being a leader. It remains my greatest leadership experience that I’ve had through my blog.”

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

Going back to credibility, blogging under my name and being as thorough as I can in my research and reporting has granted me access to press events that allowed me to share information with my readers.

And because of that access, my blog topics range from medical experts’ updates on H1N1 Flu and DC youths speaking out about school reform, to foster teens advocating for better services and poets rising for better public school libraries, to Step Afrika! bringing the house down and a summer program that educates teens about African films.

My personal brand resulted in me being invited by the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists to speak as a panelist on cultural issues. I was even a consultant to a journalism grad student, who was working on a class presentation about communications and social media.

Like Thurman, I made a conscious decision to be courageous and stand by my ideas no matter what people said about me. It’s also a good career move, according to Penelope Trunk.

That’s point #2 out of five mentioned in her blog post “Blog under your real name, and ignore harassment.” As she puts it, you already spent so much time learning a topic and becoming an expert. “But how can you get credit in your field for this expertise if you blog under a pseudonym?” wrote Trunk, whose career advice runs in 200 newspapers.

So what if you’re worried that blogging under your real name on your personal blog will jeopardize your corporate job? She has an answer for that, too. “Check out Steve Rubel. He is employed at Edelman and is sort of inventing the wheel as he goes along,” Trunk wrote. “He makes mistakes very publicly, and we all learn from them, and he’s a great model for making a blog and a corporate job work together.”

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

Trunk, who started blogging 12 years ago, knows first-hand the hassles of blogging under a pseudonym. Since her college days, she’s changed her name three times. Born as Adrienne Roston, Trunk changed her last name to “GreenHeart” after being influenced by the feminist movement in school.

The second time she made up a name was to slap it on her master’s thesis, a collection of short stories. At that time, Trunk was working at a software company. Despite the master’s thesis winning an award, Trunk’s boss–who, until then, was supportive of her writing career–considered the stories embarrassing since he thought they were pornographic. He warned Trunk that if she put her name on the thesis, it could jeopardize her promising career in corporate America.

The third and last name change wasn’t of her own doing. The editor at Time Warner, her first job as a columnist, assigned her the pen name “Penelope Trunk”. Juggling two identities wasn’t easier once her columnist job became full-time. “I thought of writing under Adrienne Greenheart, but I already had too much invested in Penelope Trunk,” Trunk wrote. “That’s who people had been reading for three years. It was too late to change. So I posted my photo by my column and I became the name officially.”

Juggling two different emails—one for each name—proved just as difficult. “I was always forgetting which email client I was in, and I sent email with the wrong name on it all the time. And surely you know that people delete email from names they’ve never heard of,” she wrote.

On the phone was no better. “I also had a lot of people calling me…and hanging up when they heard Adrienne Greenheart on my voicemail,” she recalled. “So I took my name off my voicemail.”

Going back to credibility, Trunk’s third point was that blogging under a pseudonym defeats the purpose of networking. “People were very unsatisfied to hear that they thought they knew me but in fact I was not giving them my real name,” she wrote. “And people who were just getting to know me got hung up on the name issue – they couldn’t believe that I was so well known by a name that wasn’t my name.”

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

She lost some of her readers’ trusts. “Having a pseudonym is like having a wall up between you and everyone else,” Trunk wrote. “It doesn’t have to be that way, but that’s usually how people perceive it when they find out.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t take my readers’ trusts for granted. However, there are some who will argue the benefits of blogging anonymously. “The downside to naming your blog after yourself is that it can eventually become a prison,” according to Remarkablogger’s post “How to Brand and Name Your Blog.”

“As soon as you shut your mouth, there is no personal brand,” according to the article. “If you stop blogging, you stop existing.”  It goes on to note that blogging under your name makes it impossible to hire a team of writers to take over when you just don’t have it anymore. “Me, personally? I don’t want to be that guy,” the article stated. Me, personally?

The advantages of blogging under my name far outweigh the disadvantages.

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) Rachel's self-portrait

When I wrote about Rachel Eliza Griffiths back in March 2010, the post focused on her skills as a photographer who’s credited for a number of author photos that appear on the backs of several poetry collections.

And after publishing two of her own—Miracle Arrhythmia (Willow Books, 2010), a Small Press Distribution best-seller, and The Required Distance (The Sheep Meadow Press, 2011)—I’m excited about her third collection Mule & Pear (New Issues Poetry & Prose), which is available for pre-order on AMAZON and due out this September.

Voices from the novels of Alice Walker, Jean Toomer, Toni Morrison and others inspired Rachel’s speakers in Mule & Pear. “Each struggles beneath a yoke of dreaming, loving, and suffering,” according to the publicist. “These characters converse not just with the reader but also with each other, talking amongst themselves, offering up their secrets and hard-won words of wisdom, an everlasting conversation through which these poems voice a shared human experience.”

(ARTWORK: New Issues Poetry & Prose)

Poet and educator Frank X. Walker elaborated on what Rachel’s created with this collection. “Griffiths gifts us with deleted scenes, alternate endings, and a VIP pass to wander the sets of some of the greatest literature of our time,” Walker writes in the blurb. “The reader won’t be able to resist the urge to reread Hurston, Morrison, Larson, et. al. or put this new way of seeing perhaps a new poetry technology down.” He added, “But what else should we expect from an artist who sees the world through so many mediums?”

And Rachel mixes the mediums by providing a book trailer for Mule & Pear, which I will review for a later blog post. The trailer’s gotten Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville’s (SIUE) attention. “The book trailer includes images of black women, Nina Simone’s song ‘Feeling Good’ as the soundtrack, and short excerpts of writings, presumably poems by Griffith,” according to the SIUE Black Study Blog, an online platform where Black studies, technology and active citizenship come together in an exchange of ideas among African-American academics.

Of Rachel’s book trailer, the blog notes, “The women in the video are shown in different poses, some wearing far out attire.”

Rachel’s attire consists of many hats she wears as a poet, writer, photographer, and painter. Her literary and visual work has been widely published in journals, magazines, anthologies, and periodicals including Callaloo, The New York Times, Crab Orchard Review, Mosaic, RATTLE, Puerto Del Sol, Brilliant Corners, Indiana Review, Lumina, Ecotone, The Acentos Review, PMS: poem memoir story, Saranac Review, Torch, The Drunken Boat, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, Inkwell, Black Arts Quarterly, African American Review, Comstock Review, Hambone, and many others.

“And many others”? My friend is a busy woman. Others have also taken notice. “I’ve been hearing about or more accurately viewing Griffiths’ presence on the black poetry scene for a minute now,” according to SIUE’s Black Study Blog. “Griffith had already been building and establishing herself as a noted poet and photographer.”

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) Rachel's self-portrait

Part of establishing herself was the “Ars Poetica, Photographs by Rachel Eliza Rachel,” an ongoing documentary on African-American poets, that opened in Brooklyn’s DUMBO community that month. I wrote an advance story on the exhibit in my March 2010 post.

Ever since I’ve known her, I’ve always been impressed by her talent and low-key demeanor. We met each other in 2007 at the 14th and V streets Busboys and Poets. I’ll never forget her kind and warm presence.

She loves hugs, is always encouraging her friends to be their best selves, and is genuinely happy for the accomplishments of others.

She’s not one to boast about her own accomplishments. When Rachel and I reunited during my second time at Cave Canem (CC), I didn’t know my CC sister was working on the “Arts Poetica” exhibit, or that she had three collections of poems and a novel done—all of which were manuscripts at the time.

Knowing Rachel, she wouldn’t have told me about her credentials and accomplishments. Or that she received the MA in English Literature from the University of Delaware and the MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. I had to do some digging to find out she also received fellowships including Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, Vermont Studio Center, New York State Summer Writers Institute, Soul Mountain, and others.

“And others”? You mean there’s more? Yeah, Rachel has definitely been busy—and she’s got a trailer, too! “I’m excited about the implications of a book trailer focusing on a volume of African American poetry,” the SIUE blog stated. “The release of this video further solidifies her reputation as poet and visual artist.” There, you have it. Check out the trailer, then preorder your copy of Mule & Pear!

(PHOTO: Thomas Sayers Ellis/Courtesy of Tidal Basin Review)

For those who read about this past Saturday’s book drive at Watts Park and want to donate via Tidal Basin Review, below are mailing and drop-off information:

For folks who wish to send/drop off books for DCPS:

By Mail:

Department of Employment Services
Councilmember Yvette M. Alexander
Constituent Services Office
c/o Amin Muslim
Director of Constituent Services, Ward 7
4058 Minnesota Avenue N.E.
Washington, DC 20019

Drop-Off Info:

Monday-Friday
10:00 am to 4:00 pm

Contact Person: Mr. D. L. Humphrey
(202) 727-8082

4058 Minnesota Avenue N.E.
Washington, DC 20019

(PHOTO: Shelia Henderson)

Walking past DC’s Watts Park in Northeast, the people stopped in their tracks when they heard  Mister Señor Love Daddy, from Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, speaking.

The fictitious disc jockey was invoked through a poem by Fresno, Texas-poet Jonathan Moody. Through Derrick Weston Brown’s reading of the poem, Love Daddy held court for three minutes, long enough to lend his voice to an issue of concern not just for the folks on foot, but those driving by, who pulled over to get the 411.

“My people, my people,” he said. “What can I say; say what I can.” And just as baffled as the character and Brown himself were other poets and organizers who took over the park’s Marvin Gaye amphitheater August 6 to do something about the ill-equipped DC public schools’ libraries.

(PHOTO: Shelia Henderson) Ward 7 Council member Yvette M. Alexander and Melanie Henderson.

“It seems the politics of this city are costing our children their right to a quality education,” Melanie Henderson, an organizer for Saturday’s event and managing editor of the literary journal Tidal Basin Review, said in an interview afterwards.

“It is unimaginable what the effect on a child’s self-esteem might be when walking into a nearly-empty school library,” Henderson said.

The last straw for many was the Jan. 23, Washington Post article on Ballou Senior High’s poorly-stocked library. “The literature section of [school librarian] Melissa Jackson’s library…had 63 books one morning last week, not enough to fill five small shelves,” Post Reporter Bill Turque wrote in his article “Librarian at D.C.’s Ballou High Scrambles for Books.”

“In the area marked ‘pure science,’ there were 77 volumes,” he continued. “This is not because the students at the Southeast Washington school had scoured the stacks and checked almost everything out. Ballou’s entire collection consists of 1,185 books, about one per kid.”

And that’s just at one school. Poet and public interest lawyer Brian Gilmore described the public school library system as horrific. “The DC Public School libraries I have seen resemble a library I once saw at Lorton Prison when I taught there in the 1990′s,” he said. “Few books, hardly any good books of any relevance, and the books are ragged, old and insulting.”

“And,” in the words of Mister Señor Love Daddy, “that’s the double-truth, Ruth.”

(PHOTO: Melanie Henderson) Jericho Brown before the event. Thanks for the books, Jericho!

Henderson and others at this past Saturday’s Summer 2011 Literary Arts in The Park wondered how the historic traditional public schools in the nation’s capital were below the 100 book per student threshold. “Our kids here deserve not just enough, but the best,” Henderson said.

Another point of contention were the current disparities in educational resources between the city’s haves and have-nots. “I have also seen libraries at private schools in the area and these libraries are usually stellar,” Gilmore said.

Among those private schools with stellar libraries is Sidwell Friends School, where Sasha and Malia Obama are among the 1,109 students.

In a post on her award-winning website, author and freelance writer Susan Ohanian noted that the school has three libraries. “The Upper Level school library contains over 20,000 volumes,” wrote the former educator and current fellow at both the Education and the Public Interest Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder and the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University.

Ohanian noted that Sidwell Friends has a separate area for books about the study of China, adding that students also have access to more than 50 magazines and journals. “The library also subscribes to ProQuest for online periodicals in full text,” she wrote. “This service is available both at the school and to students when off-campus.”

Ohanian sent out a charge for the First Family to correct the disparities. “I know there are thousands of schools across the country hurting for the lack of books, libraries, and librarians, but when we see one little light of a school trying to buck the anti-library tide, we must try to help,” she wrote. “And we should urge our First Family to do likewise.”

The poets and organizers at the Saturday event at Watts Park responded to a similar call to action sent out by Tidal Basin Review, Marshall Heights Community Development Organization, and Ward 7 Council member Yvette M. Alexander.

(PHOTO: Melanie Henderson) Abdul Ali shared a poem about his experiences at a creative writing workshop at Howard University.

The event kicked off a series of book drives to take place around the city to help benefit DC Public School libraries.

Gilmore, who was on the program to perform but didn’t make it because of a last minute scheduling conflict, did collect books for the drive. Though there in spirit, he called Saturday’s event a shift in approach to the educational shortcomings of a community attempting to take back control of education for city youths.

“Instead of complaining about a broken school system that is not designed to work for children of color, and never was, this is a grassroots effort to fill in a much-needed gap,” Gilmore said. “It also…sends a message to the children that someone really does care and you are not just a number on a ‘No Child Left Behind’ report.”

But more needs to be done, Gilmore noted. He suggested the organizers creating a grassroots coalition or a nonprofit to work outside what he calls “the toxic dysfunctional government apparatus.” This coalition or nonprofit would regularly collect and make literature available to DC public school libraries.

(PHOTO: Melanie Henderson) That's me, there!

Saturday’s event was just the initial effort, Gilmore noted, applauding the organizers for “a small, yet, symbolical way” of showing DC youths they’re not alone.

Henderson agreed. “Events like these empower average people to cause change in their own and in the communities of others,” she said. “It puts the power back into the hands of the people, whose love and connection to a place or space will push them to work harder and give more to the positive development and preservation of the culture, or cultures, that have nourished them.”

Henderson hoped residents left inspired to affect change in their own ways. She also hoped the event would spur “wider and stronger community involvement in support of youth.” Like Gilmore, Henderson offered suggestions on how to take the next step.

“This is a problem with a practical solution that everyone can be a part of and feel good about,” Henderson said. “The idea is to take what you know, your own talents and gifts, and your resources and networks and use them to better your community.”

(PHOTO: Melanie Henderson) Yao Hoke Glover and Randall Horton chopping it up.

During the event, the poets took the stage after posing for a group photo with organizers and Ward 7 Council member Yvette M. Alexander.

Among them was Abdul Ali, who jumped at the opportunity to be part of the effort. “I liked the idea of sharing poems with a book drive,” Ali said. “It’s a rare opportunity to do literary activism and a reading all in one.”

Poet Yao Hoke Glover agreed with Ali. “Literacy and the promotion of reading is the foundation of a community’s ability to transfer ideas [and] connect with one another,” Glover said. “The concept of books and literature must be cultivated in the children at an early age.”

That the event took place in Ward 7, with construction on the new Woodson High School in the background, made it all the more symbolic for the poet. “I would hope the event is a very concentrated and solid beginning to the strengthening of D.C. Literary Culture, particularly in the African American Community,” said Glover, who closed out the reading with poems about his father.

The highlight of the event was Mister Señor Love Daddy’s appearance on that humid Saturday. “Yes, children, this is the cool-out corner,” the fictitious disc jockey said in a poem written by Jonathan Moody and performed by Derrick Weston Brown, who opened up his set with OPP (Other People’s Poetry) before reading his own.

The character’s words summed up the mood of those gathered that afternoon in the park. He said, “I’ll be giving you all the help you need.”

For those interested in donating books, please contact Melanie Henderson via email at communitybookdrivedc@gmail.com.

At 30, I’m OK Being Unhip

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

While teaching in an after-school program one evening, Epiphany walked up and punched me in the face. It happened in the middle of a writing exercise I gave my students. The enthusiasm of some had them writing right away, while others sighed and laid their heads on the desks.

One of them rolled her eyes and said, “I’m guh!” To which I said, “You’re what?” As the students laughed, unwilling to tell me what it meant out of concern that an outsider will know their coded language, I felt every bit of 30—and some.

I thought of when I once sat where they were, laughing with my friends at the strained expression on our teacher’s face. We used a word she wasn’t familiar with and she asked us what it meant. Instead of an explanation, all she got was us laughing and pointing at her just like my students’ response to my unsuccessful efforts at getting one myself; these middle school kids weren’t talking.

I had to ask a high school student, who’s among the few that come back each year to their alma mater to hang out with their friends at the workshop. When she told me what it meant, I wondered how did this happen? How was it possible for a member of the hip hop generation to be anything but?

I don’t know if that was what Sophocles meant when he said, “A man growing old becomes a child again,” that no matter how old we get life still has a thing or two to teach us. Another thought crossed my mind. When I sat where my students sat, 30 seemed so old it was depressing. At the time, my friends and I asked each other, “Is there anything to do after 30, besides die?”

At the time, our thinking was that you had fun in your teens, settled down in your early 20s, then got ready for old age after 25. If only someone told us then that growing old, as singer and actor Maurice Chevalier once put it, “is the reward of a well-spent youth.”

(PHOTO: puregrowthorganics.com)

If only we knew then that old age wasn’t the “sad and melancholy prospects of decay,” but the “hopes of eternal youth in a better world,” as Chevalier puts it.

Since then, I’ve learned better than to fear what comes after 25, even if it means being as unhip as we once thought our parents were. That day in the after-school workshop wasn’t the first time Epiphany smacked me over the head.

She did it a year earlier, when I was giving a young woman a ride. The woman worked under my fiancée at a nonprofit advocacy group. That day, everyone was in a festive mood after pulling off the first-ever youth-led hearing that addressed the issues of foster teens aging out of the system without proper supports.

I was proud of all the teens who testified that day in the council chamber. They had the ear of DC Council Member Tommy Wells, who chaired the Committee on Human Services, which is responsible for welfare, social, and youth affairs.

The young woman and I were on our way to the restaurant where everyone else was waiting. She sat in the back, nodding to Pharoahe Monch, Cannibal Ox, and a slew of other underappreciated emcees I had playing through my stereo.

I felt good putting a 16-year-old on to some real music. Watching her in the rearview mirror, I smiled at how she seemed to enjoy what she was hearing. I smiled at the thought of being 29 and still hip—that is, until she said, “I think it’s cool when old people listen to hip-hop.” And out of nowhere, came the scratching sound of a record needle across vinyl grooves.

(PHOTO: super.heavy/Flickr)

When I told her 29 is not old, she rolled her eyes and said, “Oh, OK.” I guess I shouldn’t have taken it personal, considering Betty Friedan’s wisdom. “Aging is not lost youth,” the writer and activist once said, “but a new stage of opportunity and strength.”

That day in the after-school workshop was also Epiphany’s way of reiterating her message. The word “Guh,” according to the high school student, is a term used in the DC-Maryland-Virginia area to express when someone or something frustrates you.

So, I made my students “guh.” Even Mr. Hip-hop—with his ability to recall every rhyme from his favorite emcees; who played his music loud inside his car, sometimes with the windows down—couldn’t escape becoming his parents. Or that teacher back in middle school, who frustrated my friends and I because she pushed us to produce our best work.

When I told my students, “I’m sorry for making you all so guh,” they looked at one another before busting a gut. And given what Epiphany’s shown me, I don’t feel so unhip despite their comments. “Nah, Mr. King,” they said, still laughing. “It don’t sound right when you say it.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

And you thought mixed martial arts, football and boxing were tough contact sports? Take a stroll on any city sidewalk, and you’re bound to get shoved, kicked and shouldered.

These sidewalk hogs plow through the middle of walkways. Sometimes they travel in a group of two or three and pretend not to notice you, unwilling to give up any space on the concrete; other times, it’s someone staring you down, daring you to brush them or complain once you’ve been knocked from the curb to the grass.

And just because they’ve forced you into a game of sidewalk chicken doesn’t mean you have to be helpless.

Several writers, through their blogs and news articles, added their voices to a discussion ranging from their take on sidewalk hogs, to scientific studies on walkers’ rage, to the deteriorating street etiquette. They also offered advice on how to handle aggressive pedestrians.

Among them is Shuana Marie, whose brush with aggressive pedestrians came while job hunting in Florence, Italy. She noted that the sidewalks there are so narrow people have to turn sideways to allow one another to pass.

“Generally the locals do not notice when they bump you with their shoulder, arm, shopping bags, or my most recent experience of the oversized designer purse,” Shauna wrote on her blog Italian Living. “I’ve been struck and thrown off balance on several occasions…this has required a major adjustment for me, accustomed as I am to the ‘sorry’, ‘pardon me’, and ‘excuse me’ that I’m familiar with back home [in Calgary, Canada].”

(ARTWORK: Kenneth Kelsoe)

Recounting a story of what happened one morning on a way to her job interview, Shauna was still surprised by the sidewalk hog she encountered. “My formidable opponent is a master of the game and comes in the guise of a petite woman wearing 5″ heels,” she wrote. “Striding down the centre of the busy street’s narrow sidewalk, she refuses to give me an inch to pass.”

Though Shauna “mastered the art of wide-eyed intimidation” in the regular game of chicken, she was no match for the “stiletto-clad drill-sergeant.” “As a mere mortal faced with her well-practiced battle skills, I admit defeat, and withdraw by stepping off the curb.”

Shauna watched the woman’s “umbrella and oversized designer purse flanking her like medieval weaponry,” and took a lesson from that incident. “I need an intimidating purse,” she concluded, “large, preferably in black, and ornamented with grey skulls & multiple metal studs.”

During an online correspondence, Zoe (whose blog article “The Obligatory Courtesy Smile” inspired this post) told me, “Once, a friend of mine and I were walking together down the street and a guy barked at my friend to MOVE!”

This guy, and others like him, would be called “Sidewalk  Ragers,” according to the Wall Street Journal article “Get Out of My Way, You Jerk! : Researchers Study ‘Sidewalk Rage,’ Seeking Insights on Anger’s Origins and Coping Techniques.”

It’s a concept real enough for one scientist to create a “Pedestrian Aggressiveness Syndrome Scale,” which looks at how ragers express anger. “At its most extreme, sidewalk rage can signal a psychiatric condition known as ‘intermittent explosive disorder,’” researchers told WSJ.

Intermittent explosive disorder, or IED, is a behavioral disorder that manifests itself through aggressive actions that make a situation more than it really is, according to the Mayo Clinic staff. The outbursts or temper tantrums involve ragers attacking others to the point of causing bodily harm and damage of property broken during the incident.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

The strange thing about IED is that it’s unpremeditated. According to sources, it’s currently listed among the other impulse control disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is published by the American Psychiatric Association that includes standard criteria for classifying mental disorders.

After an IED episode, the Mayo Clinic staff said, “people with intermittent explosive disorder may feel remorse, regret or embarrassment.”

John Kalish, a Manhattan television producer, noted that IED’s effects are a sign of the times. ”There was a time that any real New Yorker had a built-in sonar in terms of walking down the sidewalk, even a crowded one, and never bumping into someone. Now—forget it,” Kalish said in the New York Times article “Think You Own the Sidewalk?; Etiquette by New York Pedestrians Is Showing a Strain.”

Offering clinical terms for Kalish’s and others’ frustrations with aggressive pedestrians, the Sidewalk Etiquette site roughly estimated that the average sidewalk consist of four by four concrete tiles. And given that a person’s shoulders span about two feet, according to the website, there’s no reason pedestrians should brush one another on walkways.

At the top of the rules listed on the site is Stay Right. “There’s nothing worse than the individual who has  a width of ten feet in their path and the bravado to squeeze you for every inch by brushing against your shoulder as they walk by,” according to Sidewalk Etiquette.

Jennifer Worick, a Seattle-based author and lecturer, echoed those sentiments. When people ask if she’d want the superpower of flight or to become invisible, Worick chooses flight because, as she puts it, “I’m already invisible”—at least, that’s how it seems when she’s walking down her block.

(PHOTO: Eagle Tae Kwon Do)

She usually encounters a gang of sidewalk hogs caught up in their conversations. “They don’t acknowledge my existence,” she wrote on her blog Things I Want to Punch in the Face. “They wouldn’t know if I was tricked out in fetish gear or pointing a flamethrower directly at them,” she continued. “Even a fiendish mime would escape their attention.”

As they got closer, it was clear to Worick that she was a forced participant in the game of sidewalk chicken. “I always lose,” she wrote. “At the last minute, I veer out of their way, usually tripping into a tree bed or slamming into a building.”

The staff at the Mayo Clinic urged aggressive pedestrians to seek treatment for their disorder. “Treatment may involve medications and psychotherapy to help you control your aggressive impulses,” according to the staff.

But Worick was ready to take some action of her own to set them straight. “I’m staging a silent protest and I’m asking you to join me,” she wrote. “When you encounter a line of people coming at you, stop. Stand still. Break their synchronized stride and make them flow around you.”

And if that doesn’t work?  “You saw The Karate Kid,” Worick wrote. “Sweep the leg.”

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