Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas or Kwanzaa? Does it Even Matter Anymore?

In my 20s, especially during my years at City College in Harlem under the tutelage of Dr. Leonard Jeffries, I and other newly africentric kats and dolls vehemently celebrated Kwanzaa, although we secretly missed decorating our Christmas trees but never said a word, afraid of appearing politically unconscious. It was the 1980s and night time soap operas like Dynasty and Dallas were helping Reagan turn the disco phase into a more formal state. So to us, Kwanzaa was the perfect weapon against a bling machine that rejected simplicity and self-reflection; more specifically, pride for one's African ancestry. Even with the emphasis of the times moving from free expression to fear of non-conformity, we still called one another brotha and sista as a way of reminding ourselves of the collective pact we made as students of the latest Black Movement. We were too young back then and way too impressionable to realize that the African clothes we proudly wore and the intoxicating lingo that came with it would soon become a phase in itself. Sister Souljah's No Disrespect had caused a well-deserved fuss but not enough to stop young honies from encouraging wanna-be thugs to literally show their asses! And even while Sean Combs' peeps were trying to pack in more than the allowed number of students in a campus hall that ended up causing some to lose their lives, we never anticipated the bling machine taking a turn for the worse; we didn't think Hip Hop would be hijacked by greedy businessmen who could care less about the plight of poor Black people or how Blacks are portrayed in the media. We also didn't think there'd be a mass rejection of authentic sub-Saharan culture and pride by American Blacks themselves. We just didn't see it coming.

Fast forward to present day when Rap connoisseur, Nas has issues with Hip Hop going from community-first to ice pop. But by this time most Black folks ain't feelin' his call for spiritual restoration. Too much money at stake and just not enough market for critical thinking. That's if you leave out the likes of Common, Mos Def, The Roots, Kanye, and Lupe Fiasco. And there lies Kwanzaa somewhere between the death of true Hip Hop and the abandonment of Dr. Maulana Karenga's gift to us.

Of course, there're still a few die-hards out there who are keeping The Seven Principles alive. But here's my challenge to them-- Do we really need Kwanzaa to show unity, self-determination, collective responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith? No disrespect; and I'm not just repeating a book title. But just like our fraternities and sororities, and even masonries, for that matter, that only end up dividing us even more, do we really need cliques as reasons to come together and for having each others' backs as a people? Shouldn't it be a given that we're all in this together? That our actions reflect our solidarity no matter what religion we subscribe to, which economic class we look like, or whether we're light-skinned or dark-skinned? I don't mean to suggest that Kwanzaa should simply be done away with because I understand why it needed to be introduced, in the first place. I'm just askin', Do we need seven days to behave in a way we ought to be behaving every day? Do I have to be part of an organized gang before getting any love? Is Kwanzaa still the answer to our self-esteem problems, or does it come down to who got the power to push what?

I'm not gonna speak for my transpotted classmates who now could care less about Umoja and Kuumba. Not when they're too busy being American. But here's why I don't celebrate Kwanzaa--

1) Hood formality dictates that my homies and I give the first sip of beer or liquor to those who crossed over;

2) I pray to those before and after me, with the total belief that they guide and protect me from those who may want to cause me harm;

3) I believe in pan-African unity, even if R Kelly and Mugabe are an embarassment;

4) I write books and give workshops for the sole betterment of our people with no apology, and sometimes with no tangible compensation;

5) I encourage those of us who use our neighborhoods as trash cans to consider the word ghetto as merely a group of people who not only look alike but share the same values, and then I ask them what their values are;

6) I define myself not by the limitations we place on ourselves, but by my ability to think beyond victimization and internalized racism;

7) Even when my own kind disses me, I still show ethnic pride!

If you ask most Blacks what the seven principles of Kwanzaa are they usually can't come up with the first one. With so much emphasis on bling these days and the music videos that bring it, it's hard to expect otherwise. Not to mention our nervous allegiance to Christianity, although behind closed doors we find ways to fight back by still giving honor to our collective plight. And anyway, wasn't it Brother Minister Malcolm who said you can't be both african and american? That the two contradict each other, like we vs I, us vs me?

No matter how much we try incorporating Kwanzaa into our psyche, Black Friday still manages to win out! Seems to me the way to go about keeping this tradtion alive--if we even want to call it a tradition--is to simply allow it into our daily lives so that it's not such a foreign thing whenever its official date comes around. You know, like Jewish folks do.

Merry Christmas, everyone
and an even Happier New Year!....Ashe

Friday, November 14, 2008

Open Mic at Sister's

I've read at other spots where the vibe is so siddity that the audience just sits there like Black republicans at an Obama rally! But at Sister's Uptown Bookstore & Cafe da vibe is always fam and real, with pan-African books and art against the walls that invite you to browse and let go of any type of pretense.

This past Thursday I stopped by to promote my second book, The Dredlocks Tree and brought along some of my students to read their own work. Not only did they represent but the audience turnout was more than we had anticipated. Not even an evening rain stopped folks from coming. Below are some photos from the event--

MC and griot, Bro. Steve who also blessed us with his songs.

Actor/poet David 'D-Black' Roberts had us laughing 'til it hurt!

Yohance Murray--Doctor Murray, that is-- came thru just to show quiet support, then shocked us all when he decided to jump in and read a gut-wrenching piece he wrote about teen pregnancy.

We all teased him at the end saying it's always them quiet ones who end up stealing the show!

An audience member obviously moved by Murray's poem.

Like I said, the youth represented big time! This is Lawrence. He thought we were going to let him get away with just one piece 'til we said, Hell no! We wanna hear another one!

I like this photo, especially. It's a typical Ocean Morisset with both light and speed moving through the reader's hands!

Jason, another one of my students. He was nervous, at first, but then once he began he was kickin' it to us like a pro!

Jason and his mother. It was her first time seeing him read and she was showing mad pride!

Another upcoming poet representing the Urban Juke Joint downtown.

Bro. Steve introducing the next reader coming up as the audience looks on.

Standing room only in the back!

Bro. Steve introduces Jadon who won 1st prize at last week's BMCC's poetry slam that I helped put together.

Poetry is spirit trying to get at something...

Hand clapping for Jadon.

This kat took us back to ol' skool with his Trans Europe Express piece...."From Be Bop to Hip Hop and back to new Pop!..."

D-Black and me pose for a shot.

Murray and me. We actually work together; and it was a special treat for me to see a whole other side of this good brotha!

This sista from Sierra Leone brought the house down with her piece on the atrocities of children in Africa being kidnapped and forced into slave labor for the sole benefit of diamond smugglers and our insatiable appepite for bling...."While you in the West use your legs and arms to dance, we here whose limbs have been cut off..." Well, you get the point. She had us hollering and stomping our feet... much that it was feeling like church up in there!!!

One of my street sons, Logic and Conscious Roots Bobby who designed my book cover.

The lovely Sachelle, a future Phd who can appreciate grassroots research.

Bro. Steve and Dr. Joy, our neighborhood folk storyteller who dropped in to close the event.

And yea, I read too with my latest book in hand. Morisset caught me giving my 'Sometimes Black folks just get on my damn nerve' face while I was reading my piece Black Man Scared.

An enthusiastic fan invites me to an upcoming open mic.

Bro. Steve and I talk shop.

Group shot with Murray and some of our students.

Algeria on my mind....but it's really Houston and 6th...Only in New York!!!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

That One for President!

No poetic fortitude this time around. Just words of profound thankfulness for our White American allies who refused to allow fear to guide their decision in this historical presidential election, along with the mass of Black and Brown people--our youth, especially--who came out to vote; some, like my daughter, for the very first time....Toussaint, Garvey, Jackie, Martin, Malcolm, and now Barack. We keep coming back and coming back, coming back and coming back for spirit never dies. Only the ability to look beyond walls and barbwires!!!


Sunday, October 19, 2008

Open Mics/Booksignings 2008

What's In It For Us?

The following is an excerpt from my piece on how to motivate younger people to get involved in neighborhodd and community partcipation....

In addressing youth neighborhood and community participation, theory and practice can work well together when both the researcher and practitioner (youth advocates, counselors, activists, etc.) focus on application and relevance. Urban communities already have a distrust for outsiders who come in only to exploit their social dilemmas, so it is crucial that we not only form strong, lasting bonds with potential youth participants, but that we also place our theories directly in line with their agendas or mission while offering them the support they need. Theories about youth development can drive decisions about their level of involvement. It is therefore worth keeping in mind that youth participation relates to youth development and autonomy; that having a strong sense of self equals a strong, self-reliant neighborhood. Language is another important factor. The researcher must remember to keep the message plain and direct, so as to avoid intimidating or confusing his or her populace for ethical considerations are not limited to theoretical standards. They also point to the respecting of cultural and economical realties, along with the need for young people to have a say in the manner in which they view community participation. Just as they ought to open their minds to the process of gathering information, studying patterns then forming an hypothesis, theorists should identify potential young leaders and their adult supporters, point to the specific obstacles that tend to block youth participation, look for untapped resources that are right in the community, encourage schools and community colleges to join in on the participation, become more creative in matters regarding neighborhood involvement and compensation, and expose these same young people to neighborhoods and communities that already have a success rate of youth participation as a kind of blueprint they can work from or towards. Our youth already know what to do. They simply need our help in showing them how to go about it. And we already know what outcome we want. We simply need their help in showing us how to get there. On their terms!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

P.S. Intermediate School Purchases K Books!!!

NYC's Intermediate School 50 ordered 25 copies of my first book, Before You Fly Off, thanks to Assistant Principal, Dr. Mable Elliot who wanted to offer her most outstanding graduating students a book they not only could relate to but also inspire them as they enter their teen years.

When I first started pitching my book to schools, Black teachers and guidance counselors were immediately impressed with how it promoted classroom management and critical thinking. Their principals and directors, however, handcuffed by curriculum policies that perpetuate the miseducation and warehousing of Black and Brown children, felt obligated to ignore even the success stories of those students and their parents who benefited from reading Before You Fly Off. I've met some Black teens who've asked why my book isn't offered right along with the standards which they feel do not address the everyday struggles of Black girls in the hood; that they would attend classes more if their schools provided books that empowered them, as opposed to training them to glorify dead folks who don't look like them!

I taught high school in New York City before, and I stayed within the alternative education format because it was the only division that allowed me and other alternative ed. educators to step out of the formula-based approach and reach our teens in a way they needed to be reached. That is, not to be talked down to and bombarded with texts and lesson plans that only end up increasing truancy. I even had a shot at principalship but turned it down once I saw how limiting a school official's authorities are, especially when it comes to the education of Black teenagers.

This is all to say how thankful I am for Dr. Elliot's effort to see beyond the bureaucratic barbwires for the sake of saving lives; young Black females' lives. At the same time, I'd be remiss not to mention that the Research Foundation of the City of New York had ordered 200 copies of my book for their own alternative education program soon after my book's publication. A remarkable event in itself for any first time author!!! It's a glance at a possible trend that could very well transcend policies in the name of re-evaluating the concept of educating inner city teens and pre-teens, to the point where academic success is not only judged by standardized tests but also by how well one survives a war zone.

So once again thank you, Dr. Elliot; and thank you, Children's Aid Society for the kind support. It is greatly appeciated!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Why All Community Colleges Need a Male Center?

Why All Community Colleges Need a Male Center is like asking why we need to develop university retention programs for male students. The answer is obvious— because we are in an academic and community crisis. With alarmingly low numbers of entering college male students nationally, specifically males of African descent, it would only make sense for university administrators to have a more proactive approach towards the recruitment and retention of marginalized populations. Without an established on-site setting for them to turn to for resources and guidance, their challenges are not only ignored but we take the risk of encouraging them to find less productive ways to cope, including illegal activities for those whose vision of academia and of themselves is even more limited. We who have been fortunate enough to receive one or more academic nods seem somewhat detached from these young men and their everyday struggles, concluding that they are either unprepared scholastically or crime-driven, and therefore inappropriate. Yet we forget why community colleges were created, in the first place which was to assist local and low-income students in pursuing a college degree and, as a result, be in a position to later compete in the market world.

Life In and Out of the Bubble
Even after being fortunate enough to be given the financial opportunity to attend college, there are a myriad of challenges that the African American college male student faces on a daily basis. While the college campus provides him with the necessary academic resources he needs in order to fulfill his major requirements, conflicts outside of what I call the bubble—the protective shield of campus life—are a constant threat to his academic success. There is a kind of dual identity that he quickly learns to adopt, as he trains himself to succeed in the classroom while still adhering to street codes that often times directly oppose taking scholarly endeavors seriously. And so the dilemma for the urban Black male commuting college student, then, is how to keep the Hip Hop in his game while still making the grade? or How to negate the perception that college is a White thing or simply easier for Black females to maneuver? Without intervention, whether be it conscientious parents, mentoring or a course specifically designed for first year students, our sons find it easier to live outside of the bubble rather than in it; and this is where the male center can be an ideal place for them to turn to when they’re bombarded with so many messages that tell them they do not belong in the classroom. Messages that even we as policy makers and instructors are guilty of sending them, whether we realize this or not, which only add to their demise. Policies and course outlines that do not take into consideration their raw talents and original ways of applying themselves to the very tasks we throw at them. We push, instead, for conformity and formulas that work for everyone else but them.

Specific Challenges
While most college students struggle with developing good note-taking and test-taking skills, finding part-time jobs and dealing with relationship issues, Black male students in urban settings face the following specific challenges:

Lack of culturally-sensitive professors and conservative Black professors who have become indifferent towards them

Getting messages that tell them something is wrong with who they are and how they look, as opposed to celebrating them while offering valuable guidance and alternatives

Conflicted with fast illegal money they can make off campus and the rich education they can benefit from later, and the realities that cause them to take risks

Counselors who have not updated their approach to counseling inner-city males, in particular

Factory-like advisement to make up for high student numbers and understaffing

More receptive to life skills instruction than textbook format; feelings of intimidation

Earlier low expectations in public school and, as a result, coming into the college setting virtually unprepared and uninformed about general college know-how

Pressures of being a first time college student in their family and not having role models to help them navigate

Academic probation and outside forces that have a direct affect on their grade point average; not having sufficient documentation to support their appeal for reinstatement

Possible criminal record and how that also adds to feelings of intimidation and low self-esteem; financial aid restrictions on ex-convicts

Undiagnosed depression; perceptions of the angry, violent Black male; no or not enough outlets to address their frustrations

No or not enough programs/courses addressing prejudice against dark-skinned males, especially and socio/historical conflicts between genders

Police harassment and brutality; discrimination, male bashing; feeling unwelcomed and not listened to; their own pains not taken seriously; always feeling one step away from incarceration

Unemployment, and the pressure to provide or to keep up with trends

Child care concerns; single fathers not being given the same serious attention

Fear of math and sciences

Difficulties with communicating on paper; being told earlier on that not following euro-centered standards of writing equals not knowing how to write

Not sure of how to choose a major, to begin with; not knowing the difference between a job and a career

No or not enough men’s studies to help them discover and develop healthier, more holistic definitions of male-hood

Defining leadership and success differently than academicians; having an innate distrust or resistance to the academic process stemmed from earlier teachings either from their communities or peer pressure

Feeling conflicted between peer pressure and assimilating into mainstream society

More Challenges
Having a limited view and definition of what Black is or can be

Giving up easily; not knowing that small failures often lead to academic success

Male identity concerns, as in being ‘cool’ vs. being looked at as a ‘nerd’

Sexual identity concerns and feelings of isolation; no or not enough programs addressing prejudice on and off campus

No or not enough exposure to Ivy League schools and international student travel programs; preference tends to be for students with higher gpa’s which in turn supports prejudices against those with lower gpa’s

No or not enough exposure to living, reachable heroes; many of them assume heroes are dead figures in history books

No or not enough programs addressing what they need (coping) vs. what we think they should need (assimilation)

Our definition for good critical thinking skills (researching, reviewing, debating) vs. their definition (creating, juggling, marketing)

Emphasis on partying; being a sexual man, as opposed to learning how to become a social man

Emphasis on hyper-masculinity; adopting prison lingo and war zone gear as a form of survival and definition of power and manhood

Health factors (HIV/STD’s, high blood pressure, weight problems, steroid use, promiscuity, premature fatherhood)

No fathers at home; no knowledge of father’s whereabouts; no introspective relationship with their fathers or older males

Fear of asking for help

The Ideal Male Center
After identifying the many factors that affect urban commuter Black male college students, an ideal format for a campus male center that would address these challenges are presented below as an overview—

The Center would provide assistance to both administrators and faculty regarding male leadership skills, retention and probation matters, freshman orientation, and mediation

The Center would assist the Counseling Center with intervention and prevention matters

The Center would play a direct role in male-based counseling

The Center would work along with the College’s Women’s Center, specifically with issues dealing with domestic abuse and conflict resolution, providing workshops that address real life dramas that tend to affect students’ grades

The Center would provide information on job leads and support the College’s Career Services in terms of dress codes and general interviewing skills

The Center would offer male mentoring

The Center would support community service

The Center would promote campus and university men’s studies and seminars

The Center would work closely with faculty members who have a strong interest and appreciation for under-represented, marginalized male students

The Center would sponsor poetry open mic nights to provide outlet for frustrated and disenfranchised males

The Center would provide information on all-male colleges, and vocational programs for students who have opted not to pursue a college degree

The Center would work closely with the College’s nurse for students who are to shy to discuss their sexually transmitted diseases

The Center would be the College’s hub for male anger management and/or referrals to off-campus programs

The Center would address relationship struggles and provide how to workshops by male facilitators who have proven to be effective not by administration, but by the students themselves

The Center would be a place of non-judgment in its effort and obligation to reach all male students, including homosexual, bisexual or what we are now calling in more colloquial terms ‘DL’, as in down low (males who have sex with other males, yet still identify themselves as heterosexual)

The Center would identify potential violent students suffering from depression or mental disorder to Counseling staff

The Center would serve as mediator in matters involving classroom or campus-wide violence

The Center would assist campus security and the counseling staff in identifying problematic but not necessarily violent male students, not as a way of encouraging negative profiling or even dismissal, but to link them with staff or faculty members who would be willing to mentor them

The Center would be linked with male centers from other university campus’, including Medgar Evers College’s Male Empowerment Program and Lehman College’s Male Center for Leadership

The Center would play a major, if not a leading role in our effort to fulfill a campus Black Male Initiative program

(June 2007)

Book Release - The Dredlocks Tree

My second book.

This time my poetry. Some ninety and change pieces that I mostly kept in my garage.

Open mics /
booksignings coming up in October and November but in the meantime, here are two excerpts--

Black man scared

White people don’t bother me
Black folks do
What with our tendency
To cling to dirty laundry
And post-slavery psychosis
We’ll sell videos of a pop star peeing on a minor
Rather than questioning
What makes that singer pop, in the first place?
It’s a wonder how we survive
All the atrocities we define ourselves by
When it’s the refusal to choose brotha over nigga
That helps gentrification lose its shock appeal
It’s simply not enough to use economics
As a reason to stay behind in the runnings
Not when sisterhood and masculinity
Are based on questionable pride
You pull at one end while I pull right back
And we do this dance of take and take
Until neither of us remembers their spirit
Preferring to answer to cattle calls
Rather than naming the cattle for what it is—
The worse kind of confinement
Where we hate ourselves so much
That we mistake rape for culture
And platnum wigs for status
Like climbing a dredlocks tree
But calling it shrub.

For us

In this place
This sacred place
We held so dear to our hearts
And in our collective consciousness
This bothered ground we called our home;
Our reason to fight and fight again
All in the name of Pan African salvation
We stand in truth
Having resolved our struggle with the pale one
And with one another
To now simply be
Each of us
Doing what we were called to do
As dedication to the promise
Those before us had made
Before relinquishing their very last breaths
To aborted uprisings and public castrations

In this here place
With our hands clutched together
Bowing our heads
As we call upon those who await us
For the renewal of our plight
We so lovingly give homage to
This borrowed soil
On which we’ve chosen
As our point of reference
Without division of any kind
But with the conviction of one force
One people
One objective
In the name of spiritual egression

It is at this moment
That we make the decision
To return to our most basic of rituals
As in before captivity and social buffoonery
To look on and ahead
Without the meaning of ‘I’

That this day
We begin at the end
At the beginning again
Our heels fixed firmly
In our agreement to transition
Having learned from our past
Leaving behind the chains that once defined us
And lift our heads towards the All Knowing
To finally
Once and for all
After being forced to despise our own
As we sing the praise of justice and forever
Give the sign
Then disappear.

Photo of sunrise by Morisset

The Dredlocks Tree can also be purchased on-line at Feel free to leave a comment or request for orders and guest engagements

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

J Journal Reception

Reading of my poem, Tuesday. I was setting up the scene by telling the audience how for a new fish--first time inmate--the intake process is a shocking and degrading experience. In this case, male prison intake.

One of my readers asked if Tuesday is a love story, so I wanted to set the record straight-- It's about prison intake, AND a love story!!! Even the College Prez got a kick out of it!

Audience reaction to my comment...At a quick glance, the sista looks like she's having a No, he didn't!!! moment.

Me and John Jay College Prez, Jeremy Travis who not only had enough vision to push J Journal, but even turned his office corridor into a faculty art gallery! I always say, supervising and directing has less to do with delegation and more to do with inspiration, motivation and support.

J Journal editors, Jeffrey Heiman (far left) and Adam Berlin (right).

Two very excited readers and one thankful writer!

Group pic-- The attending writers of the very fist issue of J Journal, with editors and College Prez

Photos by Morisset (Who else?!)