For Brook Stephenson

For Brook Stephenson
Brook’s signature pose of books he admired. I gave him this book to guide the edits of his novel in progress, The Maturation of Moses Jones.

I met you in an auditorium at Columbia University after witnessing Kiese Laymon and Philip Lopate debate the genius of Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. A line had formed of friends and others like me who wanted to wish Kiese well and express our gratitude, and when my time came, Kiese and I began discussing a question that I had posed during the talk. Then you walked up and Kiese asked, “You know Brook?” in a way that meant that I needed to know you. We exchanged numbers and you told me about the Rhode Island Writer’s Colony, the colony you curated. Whenever I texted you after that initial meeting, you responded, and a month later I had submitted my manuscript and been accepted as a writer-in-residence.

In the two weeks we communed in Warren, Rhode Island, in a home with six other creatives, a few blocks away from your brother’s home, you shared your life story with me, with us. You and your brother John had been inspired to create a space for writers of color by your late father’s passion for the arts. Your father had been a visual artist and art teacher who had always encouraged you to create. I also came to know your mother who was there to spend evenings with us over dinner and drinks during that first week. In short time, it became clear that your kind, selfless personality sprang from her.

After dinner one evening, we agreed to share how we became writers, and you offered the story how you began writing for Rolling Out. You had secured an interview with the publisher under the pretense that you were a writer.  At that time you hadn’t been published and had no idea what the publisher desired, but you were confident and unflappable and brought with you the first short story you had ever composed, one that you had written in preparation for the interview. The publisher was impressed, but he needed it to be shorter. And over a series of weeks, you began submitting story after another, until the publisher was convinced that your writing could sell magazines. Your persistence led to countless articles and columns you would write about music, art, and culture. Eventually it led you to New York, where you would network and meet scores of writers, photographers, playwrights, and other artists to form a community. (more…)

Baltimore’s Day Off

Many businesses and public spaces in Baltimore remained closed Tuesday after the violent events that took place throughout the city Monday. One of the more prominent closures was that of the area’s public schools, including the high school at which I used to teach.

As a precursor to the decision, which was announced Monday evening, the Baltimore Public School System released this official statement on the “state of current unrest”:

At this time of tension and anxiety regarding the tragic events surrounding Mr. Freddie Gray, we have a heightened responsibility to our students, families, and school communities. First, the safety of our staff and students is our top concern. We are in constant contact with the Mayor’s Office, Baltimore City Police Department, and the City Health Department, and are coordinating with them to ensure we are ready to respond to situations as they arise. We will make crisis counselors and mental health professionals available at schools throughout the city for all of our students, and they will remain as long as it is necessary. Additionally, we have redeployed senior district staff and mobile units to assist in ensuring safe passage of our students between school buildings and bus stops. (more…)

“The Education of Hip Hop” Radio Interview with Dr. Vibe

Click here to listen to my interview with Dr. Vibe in which I discuss my essay “The Education of Hip Hop”

The Education of Hip Hop

Hip hop has always been in my classroom as have other forms of figurative expression. Its most recent appearance was unplanned and surfaced last Wednesday during a discussion of “A More Perfect Union,” a speech delivered in 2008 by Barack Obama wherein he sought to define and defend his character during his initial campaign. This semester I’m teaching speech as a spoken art form in conjunction with poetry to examine, among other aims, how allusion, imagery, and narrative persona interact.

Hip hop found its way into the discussion as my class and I explored Obama’s reflections of America’s racist character when a student—I’ll call him Kwame, a black musician in his late 20s—alluded to the SAE fraternity video as an example of modern racism. Kwame wondered if the students were really racist or if they were simply aping the language of America’s long tradition. Racism was a learned disease and not the sole determinant of a person’s character, Obama seemed to say as he described his love and acceptance of his white grandmother despite her racist tendencies. “The students were probably unaware of what they really were saying and just silly,” Kwame concluded. “None of them would dare say those things to a black kid on the football team.”

Almost every hand shot up at this suggestion. What then ensued was one of those fascinating, honest conversations students have with each other during class, when your job as a teacher is to get out of their way and police, where necessary, a respectful dialogue. Because it will aid my illustration, I should share that my class at Queensborough Community College is comprised of students from all walks of life, ranging in age and culture without a clear, dominant ethnicity represented. (more…)