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(IMAGE: New Issues)

You’ve seen that movie or read the novel, the one where the ending blindsided you. The hero or heroine, for whom you rooted throughout the drama, was either captured or killed. Or maybe it was another story with an ending that left you hanging.

In either case you left the theater or closed the pages, slightly disappointed. But that didn’t stop you from dreaming up alternate endings for your satisfaction.

That’s what Rachel Eliza Griffiths does with Mule & Pear (New Issues, 2011), her third collection of poetry. “Many of these poems convey the intimacy I’ve developed and sustained through reading,” Rachel writes in a brief introduction. “From this act and all of its powers, my imagination gathered some of my most admired literary characters and their creators in one space, one intricate body…in hopes that each voice would make its way towards other voices.”

Rachel gathered characters from the novels of Alice Walker, Jean Toomer, Toni Morrison and a host of other novelists, including DC’s own Edward P. Jones.

Alice walks right off the pages of Jones’s The Known World and into Rachel’s poem “Alice Paints the Moon.” In the novel, Alice is a slave who wanders away from the plantation every night. And each time she’s captured by the patrollers who bring her back to Henry, her Black slave owner.

According to Jones’s novel, Alice’s madness is the result of a mule kick to the head, or as Rachel puts it poetically: “a mule kicked her spirit into the middle/ of some unknown world.” (I dug the play on the novel’s title in those lines).

And while Jones’s back story humanizes Alice, Rachel’s poem goes further in that task. That the “hemorrhaged world” inside this madwoman was more exciting than her reality not only intensifies how severe her mental injury was but also speaks to the pain of slavery.

It also takes the onus of madness off Alice and puts it on the oppressive world around her. Had I been living during Alice’s time, it wouldn’t take a mule kicking my head for me to go mad. A Black man owning me would get the job done.

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths)

The madness takes on a different form in the poem “Sarah / Suckled by Her Mistress Manon Gaudet.” Both characters appear courtesy of Valerie Martin’s novel Property.

The story, told in Gaudet’s voice, takes place on a sugar plantation north of New Orleans. Sarah’s the unwilling mistress of a slave owner, whose wife, Gaudet, is in a bad marriage. Gaudet, unable to have children, despises Sarah, who birthed two kids for her master.

Sarah escapes in a slave revolt that kills Gaudet’s husband and severely injures the woman.

Rachel Eliza Griffiths’s poem “Sarah / Suckled by Her Mistress Manon Gaudet” flips the point of view from Gaudet to Sarah, who rarely speaks in the novel.

And like Alice, Sarah doesn’t have to own someone else’s perception of her being “crazy”. Instead, through Rachel’s poem, Sarah turns that perception back on the oppressive world of which both women are victims.

Sarah also turns it on the perverse Gaudet, who suckled Sarah’s breasts for milk to further subjugate the slave woman. “Understand this:/ I didn’t offers my breast to her. The night she come/ into my room like a man hunting my nipple,” Sarah says in Rachel’s poem. “Mistress knows nobody going listen/ if I tell it. How can I tell/ what’s crazy or real anymore?”

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) Self portrait.

What makes these poems great is that there’s music amid the madness. Take the poem “La Tête du Soleil,” where the music is in the recurring “baby”: “Baby, baby in your mama’s calabash/ […] Baby of kola & palm wine, baby/ whose eyes will never close/ […] Baby, baby in your basket of war.”

Another musical moment is in the recurring “basket”: “[…] basket of war/ […] In a basket your laughter/ […] A child’s head rolling inside the gutted basket.”

“La Tête du Soleil” was inspired by events from Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun, which explores the lives of two women during the Nigerians-Biafran War (1967-1970).

The musical moments intensify the speaker’s disgusted tones, which play off the English translation of the poem’s title: “Lord, I beg Your Pardon”: “I beg your pardon. I beg/ your pardon. Lord,/ I beg your pardon.” At that point, the tone goes from disgust to a plea for the war’s end.

A poem just as musical is “Mercy Does Not Mean Thank You”. Reading this poem, it was impossible not to think of a woman’s body nailed to a crucifix: “a body/ with wounds” and “a moan beneath laughter” (they know not what they do).

Mercy, the silent heroine, takes on the sins of the world—“the waterlogged/ song of Emmett Till”, “[…] girls/ buried beneath a bombed-out church”, “a shadow removing/ its eyeless hood”.

(IMAGE: Dane of travelpod)

The musical moments are the recurring “say” and “it is”:

But say it is a body
with wounds

Say it is my father
bursting into tears alone
above his newspaper

Or is it the blood-flecked
underbelly of a rabid dog
named Thank You

Maybe it is the dark cinema
of my camera […]

Say it is four tongues
that puncture
a compass

[…] Say it is new as a haircut
Say it is hard as a strawberry
Say it is useful as ugliness
Say it is necessary as hands

Say it is the vantage
from God’s knees

and so on.

Those recurrences make the poem a chant, which was relaxing. I imagined Mercy chanting along, drawing into herself and that spiritual place to heal.

I enjoyed Rachel Eliza Griffiths’s Mule & Pear for the same reasons Carl Phillips did. “Griffiths is a master at capturing persona, and uses that gift, especially, to consider the notion of heritage,” according to his blurb. “The ambition of these poems dazzles, as does indeed their achievement.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Bettina Judd’s Poetic Justice

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Bettina Judd) Bettina

She didn’t go looking for poetry. In fact, it was the other way around, Bettina Judd told a packed house Friday evening at the 14th and V streets Busboys and Poets.

She was the Sept. 9 feature at the Nine on the Ninth monthly poetry event, the longest running series hosted exclusively by Hughes poet-in-residence Derrick Weston Brown.

Typically, a featured artist kicks off the event, followed by a 10-15 minute interview and audience Q&A with the artist called the BluePrint Sessions. The event culminates with a limited open mic. Bettina tore it up.

A bi-coastal Cave Canem Fellow, the Spelman College alumnus infuses her interest in women’s studies, social justice and spirituality in her poetry and visual art.

This practice echoes the point Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux makes in their book The Poet’s Companion: “There is a world inside each of us that we know better than anything else, and a world outside of us that calls our attention.”

Bettina navigates both her internal and outer worlds by challenging interdisciplinary scholarship and intertextual narrative through her doctoral program in Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.

The poems she read Friday came from her dissertation, a poetic and visual exploration of body, memory and the history of gynecological experimentation on Black women in the US, and an academic and creative venture on affect and Black feminist politics in Black women’s art.

(ARTWORK: uncopyrighted image of Anarcha)

Among those poems is the “Etymology of Anarcha I” that alludes to a slave woman named Anarcha who suffered severe vaginal tears from child-birth.

The damage resulted in Anarcha’s inability to control her bowels and bladder, according to various sources. Though the speaker in “Etymology of Anarcha I” is not Anarcha, the persona suffered from a similar ordeal although she wasn’t giving birth.

The audience at Busboys and Poets tensed and squirmed in their seats from the poem’s physical details: “when the tearing came there was/ no baby in the canal but a new route:/ fistula, with a hard f like fetal/ freak, fatal, furor.”

The audience bristled at the poem’s psychological details: “i needed the f when the break screamed/ no sound from me but fire, fuchsia/ becoming an un-fuckable woman is a freedom/ the black hole of my sex, a fare/ to the good doctor I will be flesh/ which you will think brutal.”

Slave women like Anarcha, Betsy (sometimes spelled “Betsey”) and Lucy were guinea pigs for Dr. Marion Sims, who experimented on them to hone his skills in what would later be called gynecology. The three slave women’s spirits, summoned by Bettina, haunted Busboys and Poets Langston Hugh’s room.

Betsy and Lucy come alive in “The Opening”: “betsey leans in with sure hands/ slosh of seeping liquid/ lucy prepares for metal on wet tissue/ menstrual blood to urine to feces.” There’s companionship between Betsey, Lucy and the speaker, who’s also been experimented on, when the speaker says: “we are an unfortunate journey, a plunder/ darkness’s heart and treasured coast.”

(ARTWORK: Courtey of The Anarcha Project)

These psychological details intensifies the horrors of experiments done on Black women’s bodies: “[…] introduce spoon and i am sacrament/ unforgivable sin and reprieve practice/ in the dark ghetto of my body.”

These psychological details illustrated the companionship between Bettina’s speaker and the other two women:

dear lucy, dear betsey
that we three weren’t so perfectly broken
the scent of us so eagerly hunted
if our mouths, when opened up
could light our darkness

Bettina’s speaker’s handle of trauma illustrates another point Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux make in The Poet’s Companion: there’s no equation between good poetry and unhappy circumstances. “We each write out of our own constellation of experiences,” Addonizio and Laux writes. Last night’s reading was heavy–the weight of history so present.

But Bettina didn’t leave us there. She brought it home with her poem “Full Bodied Woman” that had women calling out uh huh! and I know that’s right! The women and men in the crowd exchanged knowing glances with one another when Bettina read:

a Full Bodied Woman gives life in edible chunks.
those who know partake. those who don’t
run to lesser women, and die of starvation.

The crowd’s shouts of affirmation got loud at this point of the poem: “from this we know She will return/ for who could  reign over a woman who/ sings I’m a Woman without apology? As in:
I am that I am.”

Bettina made us laugh during the Q & A with Busboys and Poet’s poet-in-residence Derrick Weston Brown, who started the monthly reading series six years ago. Asked how poetry found her, the poet covered her smile. “It’s a really embarrassing story,” Bettina said. “Big up to John Singleton!”

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Bettina)

This puzzled the audience until the poet elaborated. It was Janet Jackson’s character, Justice, in Singleton’s 1993 film Poetic Justice that started Bettina off on her journey as a writer.

Like her speaker with the three slave women, Bettina found companionship with poetry. So much so that it still wakes her up with the 3 a.m. urge to write. “It’s like a ghost. It knocks against your head,” Bettina said. “It kept finding me even when I thought I was through with it.”

(SKETCH: Gregory Culp)

Editor’s note: This is a work of fiction I wrote back in 2007. It first appeared in The Spoof, an online publication like The Onion that publishes satire. I thought I’d repost it here and introduce you, dear reader, to Geritol Hightower.

At 72, Hightower leads the fight against agism. Say “Iron Man,” and Marvel Comic fans automatically assume you’re referring to Tony Starks from the Avengers crew.

But unlike the superhero, 72-year old Geritol Hightower didn’t need a shrapnel wound to the chest nor did he have to sell out to the Vietnam Communist party to become Iron Man.

“How do I feel being compared to a comic book character? You’re a reporter, right? How would you feel if someone compared you to Clark Kent or Peter Parker?” he says reclined in a cushioned wicker chair at his Miami home. “It’s kind of sick if you ask me. I’m flesh and blood while this…this thing prances around with his friends. And he’s a super-hero?”

Joined by two auburn-colored women apparently in their mid-30s — whose rippling backs and carved buttocks are visible through the thin fabric of their two-piece bikinis — he takes off his shades while one of the women rubs the throbbing vein at his left temple after patting down the onyx shine the perspiration gives his cool, charcoal-colored skin.

A two-time Olympic Gold medalist and the Ironman Pro champ five consecutive times, Geritol defeated Puerto Rico’s Gustavo Badell and Australia’s Lee Priest in the 2005 competition.

Right now, he’s the most sought after power-lifter turned body builder, appearing on the cover of the current issue of Iron Man Magazine with Fitness Olympia’s spokesperson and hardbody model Timea Majorova.

(SKETCH: Danomyte)

Growing up, Geritol knew something wasn’t quite right when he discovered he could out-lift most men twice his age. At 15 years old, all he wanted was to be noticed by Carla Dibbs, who he’d had a crush on since elementary school.

Attempting to catch her eye, while playing a prank on a faculty member, he and his boy Drink Water lifted their high school gym teacher’s car three feet off the ground and walked it to another parking spot. That day etched him and Drink Water into high school history.

Geritol smiles as if the moments were reeling before him.

“Man, we didn’t know what girl troubles were before that happened,” he says. “But afterwards, we damn near needed a stick to beat off the ones that were begging for a bit of our time.”

“Things were different when we were coming up,” Hightower continues. “It was 1949. We had just gotten the right to vote and went crazy with whatever little freedom we had.”

During that time, the U.S. had entered into World War II, and with his father off fighting, he took a job at Dino’s Diner in Silver Spring, Maryland as a short-order cook, earning 43 cents an hour.

“We were hard workers, our generation. You don’t get that from the kids these days. And certainly not that wannabe-cartoon figure,” says Hightower, taking a bite of his veggie club and munching his beat chips before washing them down with a wheat grass smoothie.

“This generation doesn’t understand that. Most of them looking for a quick way to everything. Some even turn to violence for a means to an end,” he says. “Well, for you young people out there who think robbing old folks is fun, you won’t be the first or last to be introduced to a good ol’ fashioned, never had it quite like this, ass whuppin’.”

He continues, “I’m talking ’bout giving one of those type of beatings where the paramedics checking to see if you still breathing. Just try me.”

(IMAGE: Milosh Kojadinovich)

Geritol remembers such a case, when a young man assaulted him in a 7-11, wildly wielding a switch blade. The guy, who stood at 6′ 4″ and 320 lbs., had Hightower by four inches.

He acted like he was going for his wallet in the back pocket, then delivered a fierce backhand that sent a bloody tooth spiraling out of the boy’s mouth before he stumbled backwards.

After disarming his attacker, Geritol was still beating the boy when the cops arrived. It took 10 men clubbing him with nightsticks and shocking him with tazers to handcuff him while they strapped and rolled the kid out on a gurney.

“It’s not just the young. People, in general, see an elderly fella and dollar signs pop up where their pupils oughta be. Shiii.. Folks’ll never be done exploiting us,” he shakes his head. “Some guy from the drug company asked if I would be in one of his commercials for Viagra.”

Just then, the women start chuckling. Geritol stops abruptly, and without being verbal about it, he shoots them a look that says get the hell out the room! One makes her way to bring him some more beet chips while the other goes to prepare him another vegetable shake.

“I looked that fella in the eye,” he continues, “and said ‘Is you crazy, boy? Would a healthy man such as yourself allow his likeness to be used on a poster for herpes and gonnorhea? Get the hell outta here ‘fore I beat your ass off GP.'”

The interview’s interrupted again when Geritol’s eyes expand like rubber “O’s” after answering his cell. Then he jumps up. “Iron Man Mag wants to know if I’m available for a cover shoot with Lenda Murray and Anja Langer,” his pitch rises with excitement. “Hell yeah! How many 70-something year olds you know that can say they shared the covers with two legendary hardbody models?”

(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.

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