Sunday, November 1, 2009

My Two Ladies

Writers are critical enough of one another and themselves, so when they show another writer love, that's a major deal and not simply a compliment. For example, Nelson Mandela read Maya Angelou while he was imprisoned; Sidney Poitier read Langston Hughes when he was learning how to perfect his acting skills; James Baldwin read Richard Wright before becoming our beloved Jimmy; Amiri Baraka read Sonia Sanchez; and Dr. Brenda Greene, founder of National Black Writers Conference, gets lifted by the words of Toni Morisson. My main nourishment comes from the cultural critic and often times acerbic Stanley Crouch who pulls no punches when it comes to forcing American Blacks to look at our sht, smell it, taste it, so we can admit our shortcomings and then do something about them. But my two favorite writers are two women who have helped shape my attitude about us as a people and myself. My two ladies, as I like to call them, have actually helped me become a well-rounded man; a critical-thinking, emotionally present and socially-conscious Black man unimpressed by trends and religious indoctrination. Artistically and affectionately, they are my sisters. Their words and energies encourage me to be the kind of male who sees Black woman power as a necessary and not as a burden; to use my words to not only inform, enlighten and, in the best outcome, inspire, but to also heal myself of my demons, since it's our demons (fear, doubt, regret, impediment, abandonment, loss) that dictate who we are, what we write about and how we love.

I first met Staceyann Chin at a gay rally in New York City back in '03. An Irish lesbian friend of mine had invited me to join her. At first I declined, assuming gay rally meant drag queens and effeminate men prancing around Bryant Park in hot pants and loud colors, with attitude to match. The kind of posturing my fashion-proned daughter calls fierce but that I tag vociferous!!! Still, I gave in. Or, rather, she dared me to step out of my comfort zone to come learn something. It was a typical hot summer day and I showed up on the crowded lawn wearing a sweatshirt and jacket, dark shades and my old fisherman's hat. My friend had no trouble picking me out of the multitude and just grinned, satisfied that I had kept a promise. And to my surprise, there were no drag queens, no boy toys, no scenes. Just regular folk--mostly White--sitting on sheets and listening to the speakers who turned out to be community acitivists, parents, city councilmembers and other professionals. My friend asked me if I was hot with all I had on, but I played it off with a "I'm good", though beads of sweat were telling on me. I think I took my shades off once to wipe my face; and that's when I noticed these tennis shoes pressing down on a patch of green. My eyes connected the dots. From grass to flat shoes to beige khakis up to a firm-looking behind to a sheer burgundy blouse to all this hair surrounding a face with bright yet potentially scolding eyes, and a smile. The kind of smile one makes when you want to show pity. She said, "It's not that serious, my brotha!" And like that, she disarmed me, as she does so many. I took the shades and hat off, but soon after she was gone only to re-appear on stage where she fucked the audience with her usual pontification; instigating, tearing apart and putting back together, all the while thrilling us and filling me with a sense of joy and purpose I had never experienced from a writer before. And it took Ireland to get me there!

Since then I've been captivated by Staceyann Chin's writing, poetry slams and convos on BET's My Two Cents show where she not only stands out but often comes off like a frustrated bird of paradise stuck in a 30-minute cage and between two hosts who basically want to keep things on the surface, which if you know Staceyann at all you know that safe talk and quick fixes just don't work for her. You've got to do away with the bandaids, she'll tell you, and dig in that wound until all the crap is completely out and ready for cleansing. Or else you're not doing the work. You're not healing. And you're not living. Just taking space. And if that suits you, get the fuck out the way and go sit in a corner somewhere and watch how it's done!

She screamed her lungs out recently at the Gay Rights March, telling our President that she and her posse of thousands are watching his ass to make sure he keeps his own promise. And just the other night I went to see her at Harlem's Schomburg Center where she and fellow Carib writers, Anton Nimblette and Curu Necos-Bloice read their latest works. The brothers were strong, but Stacyann's natural flow with performing arts tends to make her stand out more and shake an entire room. It's her hands. She reads with her hands. And when she's at the brink of driving her point thru she leans forward, her fingers wickedly hanging off her lips, as if she's in the middle of eating a juicy piece of guava, then either saves you or rattles you with her honesty.

Now, if Stacyann Chin is the one to pull the alarm lever while the rest of us make excuses for avoiding and denying, Edwidge Danticat paints the stories of the Haiti she left behind when she migrated to the States. Whether it's a cast of familiar characters she grew up knowing or recording Haitian folklore, Danticat's art reflects an under-represented people with a history of determination and stamina. But we know this already. Or at least most of us know by now that Haitians were the first free Blacks on this side of the planet. By taking the white out of our red and blue, we forced the French to keep to their own shores and as punishment they took all the money and gold, leaving Haiti or more acurately Ayiti in chaos and destitute. Some of us even know that it was Ayiti who taught Latinos how to fight. But what Danticat writes about is how a people with such a proud yet complicated past and disposition can manage to still create beautiful colors on canvas. This is the true essence of making something out of nothing. And no one writes about beautiful pain like Edwidge Danticat. Her words connected by butterflies flutter in and out of testimonies, reach over the yellows and oranges and corals of the hibiscus to get to the buried, to the talking bones, and then back up again to give voice to the ones who came before us and those who are waiting their turn.

I first met Edwidge at the Haitian American Writers Guild. We were both members of a small group of early 90s fugee writers, but we knew she was the star. Had my father not instilled in me an appreciation for remakable women, I would have been intimidated by her presence and supernatural words. It wasn't too long after that when she pulled Breath, Eyes and Memory out of one of her braids and made Oprah's best reads list. To the rest of the world, it was an extraordinary literary debut. But for us it was overdue; practically predicted by the resilience of the Haitian children, the leftover burnt trees that their parents use as fuel to cook with, their hands tempered by customs too complex/too simple to comprehend, and Danticat's own hands waving goodbye from her airplane window. She must have told herself that her legacy would be forever bound to the struggles of her people, our people. And so she went on to translating for us the many different stuggles she grew up sketching in her mind; translating stubborn flowers into an art form. Anything to help us reclaim our selves, if not our island's glory.

I recently ran into Danticat at the Brooklyn Book Festival where she was one of the honorees, no doubt. She had her husband and daughter with her, and he blessed me with a photo shot of her and me for posting. It was one of those reunions where both of us understood the meaning of such a not so accidental crossing of paths and the belief that all God's children indeed have tavelling shoes!!!

I used to say, When I grow up I wanna write like Edwidge Danticat! But then sea goddesses swim alone. Not without. Just alone.


Ocean Morisset said...

This is a beautifully written piece K. i hope you send Stacey-Ann and Edwidge the link to it! You too have a remarkable flair for writing in a style that's earnest and transformative. Kudos to you!

Michele said...

Lovely piece, frere. Your unyielding, "fierce" love of strong sistas...Black, Haitian, "of color", gay, straight, nurturing and empowering. I'm so glad to call you my brother :-)