Reflections on the Harlem Renaissance: A Prose & Poetry Showcase


MUSIC>>ONE OF THE THINGS THAT I LOVE ABOUT THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE WAS THE ACT OF TELLING STORIES. YOU KNOW, I STARTED OUT BY SAYING WHAT STORIES DO I WANT TO TELL? THE ELDERS PUT A HUSH OVER YOUR LIFE LONG BEFORE I WAS BORN. IT TOOK ME 30 YEARS TO LEARN YOUR NAME. ANOTHER FIVE TO FIND OUT HOW YOU DIED. MARY ELIZA IS MY GREAT-GRANDMOTHER WHO WAS A MARRIED WOMAN WITH SIX CHILDREN. SHE DIED AFTER HAVING AN ABORTION. I AM SORRY YOU ARE OUR FAMILY’S DIRTY SECRET. KEEP IN MIND, THIS WAS — I MEAN, THIS WAS SOMEWHERE AROUND 19 — 1906 WHEN THIS HAPPENED, 1907. A DECISION THAT SHE MADE WITH HER HUSBAND BECAUSE THEY WERE POOR AND HAD SIX KIDS ALREADY, YOU KNOW. AND THE FAMILY, THE ELDERS IN THE FAMILY DECIDED WE ARE NOT GOING TO TALK ABOUT THIS AFTER SHE DIED. WE JUST WILL NOT TALK ABOUT THIS EVER AGAIN. WHICH MEANS WE WILL NOT TALK ABOUT HER EVER AGAIN. NEITHER OF YOU WANT TO SEE THE SLOW DEATH THAT COMES WITH STARVATION TIMES SIX. SEVEN MUST BE UNDONE. I WANTED TO RESURRECT HER NAME. I DID NOT WANT HER SPIRIT OR HER MEMORY TO BE ONE OF SHAME ANYMORE, YOU KNOW, IN OUR FAMILY OR FOR ME. AND SO, I REALLY WANTED TO HONOR HER. HOW MANY WOMAN DO YOU WELCOME TO THE OTHER SIDE WHO LOST THEIR LIVES THE SAME WAY YOU DID? I AM SORRY THAT WE DON’T TALK ABOUT YOU. YOUR CHILDREN LEARNED NOT TO SPEAK YOUR NAME. YOUR GRANDCHILDREN KNOW NOT TO ASK QUESTIONS. BUT YOU HAVE A GREAT-GRANDDAUGHTER WHO DOESN’T TAKE TO THESE LESSONS OF SILENCE. I WANT TO SAY YOUR NAME IN MORE THAN A WHISPER. MARY ELIZA, YOU HAVE NOTHING TO BE ASHAMED OF. MARY ELIZA, I AM RESURRECTING YOUR MEMORY RIGHT NOW. MARY ELIZA, WOMEN AREN’T DYING ANYMORE THE WAY YOU DIED. AT LEAST NOT FOR NOW. [ APPLAUSE ] MUSIC>>THE BEST PART ABOUT POETRY FOR ME IS THE PHYSICAL AFFECTS THAT CERTAIN SOUNDS AND THE LANGUAGE CAN MAKE ON A LISTENER AND A READER. THIS IS CALLED “ODE TO KOOL-AID.” YOU TURN THE KITCHEN TAPS METALLIC STREAM INTO TROPICAL DRINK. EXTRA SUGAR WHIRLPOOLING TO THE PITCHER BOTTOM LIKE GYPSUM SAND. PURPLESAURUS REX. ROARING ROCK-A-DILE RED. ICE BLUE ISLAND TWIST. SHARKLEBERRY FIN. ON OUR TONGUES, EACH VERSION KEEPS A SECTION LIKE TILES ON THE ELEMENTAL TABLE. I’M FROM TOLEDO, OHIO, WHICH IN ITS HEYDAY WAS A POOR-MAN’S DETROIT. YOU KNOW, IT’S COLD. IT’S REALLY UGLY IN THE WINTER. IT’S SLUSHY. IT’S GRAY. A LOT OF RUSTY WAREHOUSES, MOST OF THEM EMPTY. SO I THINK THAT INTERNALLY IS ALWAYS IN MY — UNFORTUNATELY MY OUTLOOK AND MY MOOD. BUT IT’S DEFINITELY ALWAYS IN MY POEMS AND HOW I WANT TO MAKE LINES AND SENTENCES. I WROTE MY FIRST BOOK WHEN I WAS LIVING IN HARLEM AND A LOT OF THE POEMS AT SOME POINTS FIND THEIR WAYS TO SECTORS WITHIN UPPER MANHATTAN AND HARLEM. ONE OF THE WONDERFUL THINGS ABOUT NEW YORK IS THE PROXIMITY AND THE IN-EACH-OTHER’S-FACE-IVENESS THAT EXISTS THERE WHEN IT COMES TO SOCIOECONOMIC CLASS. AND THAT WAS THE FIRST TIME I’D EVER REALLY BEEN AROUND WEALTH OR BIG-TIME MONEY. YOU DON’T OWN ANY SUITS THAT COST LESS THAN MY RENT. YOUR OFFICE PERCHES AT HAWK’S VIEW. MAHOGANY-PANELED CHAMPAGNE FRIDGE TO TOAST SUCCESSFUL DEALS. MY MAILROOM RADIO TRILLS. SPEAKER MESH BLEARY LIKE A CARPET LAYER’S KNEES. FROM YOUR TRIBECA RESIDENCE YOU CAN VIEW THE EMPIRE STATE BUILDING LIGHT NIGHTLY LIKE A NATIONAL CANDLE. AT MY D TRAIN STOP OUTSIDE A TURNSTILE A COUPLE ROARS AT EACH OTHER OVER A SQUANDERED METRO CARD. [ APPLAUSE ]>>SO I’M BORN AND RAISED IN COLUMBUS. I GREW UP IN THE NORTH LINDEN NEIGHBORHOOD. I STUDY WRITING, AND I STUDY PSYCHOLOGY AND NEUROSCIENCE. I THOUGHT I WAS GOING TO BE A DOCTOR. I AM NOT A DOCTOR. BUT I DID TURN OUT TO BE, LIKE, A REALLY GOOD WRITER. I DO LIKE TO MAKE PEOPLE UNCOMFORTABLE. THAT’S JUST TO START A CONVERSATION. I’M AN ESSAYIST, SO I WRITE CREATIVE NONFICTION. AND I KIND OF — I LOVE NONFICTION BECAUSE THERE’S THIS HONESTY ABOUT IT. WHAT’S ON THE PAGE, IT’S JUST, LIKE, RAW. MY FAMILY DIDN’T GO TO CHURCH. WE CELEBRATED CHRISTMAS BY GATHERING TO EAT HAM AND GREENS AS A FAMILY. IN MY HOUSEHOLD THERE WAS A GOD, AND SOMETIMES WE REFERRED TO THAT GOD AS GOD AND SOMETIMES AS JAH. A COUPLE YEARS AGO MY FRIEND TEXTED ME VERY RANDOMLY, AND FIRST HE WAS TALKING ABOUT ALIENS, AND THEN HE SAID, DO I THINK GOD IS A BLACK WOMAN. WHY IS SHE? WHY ISN’T SHE? WHAT WOULD IT BE LIKE IF SHE WAS? SO I TOOK THAT TEXT CONVERSATION WE HAD AND TURNED IT INTO AN ESSAY. IT’S A HYBRID PIECE THAT IMAGINES WHAT GOD WOULD BE LIKE AS A WOMAN, SO THERE ARE A LOT OF LIKE, VISUAL, VISCERAL DESCRIPTIONS OF GOD DOING THINGS. LIKE CREATING THE EARTH. SO I THINK I’M GOING TO READ THAT PIECE BECAUSE IT’S FUN. MY EX-LOVER IS TRYING TO BRIDGE BIOLOGY AND RELIGION BY MAKING GOD A BLACK WOMAN. HIS ARGUMENT IS BIRTH. HIS ARGUMENT CONVERGES BOTH EVOLUTION AND CREATIONISM, SAYING THAT SHE MUST HAVE CREATED EVOLUTION IN ORDER TO CREATE MAN. BUT SHE BIRTHED THE UNIVERSE. I IGNORE HIM, MORE INTRIGUED BY BLACK FEMALE GOD. I WANT TO KNOW HER. I WANT TO FEEL HER. I WANT TO BELIEVE THAT SOMEHOW MY ESSENCE EMBODIES HER. BLACK FEMALE GOD. HE THINKS ABOUT IT FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF A MAN. WHO GAVE BIRTH TO ADAM? BUT INSTEAD I IMAGINE EXHAUSTED BLACK FEMALE GOD FLOATING IN THE UNIVERSE SURROUNDED BY HER PLANETS. THE WAXINESS OF AFTERBIRTH CAUSES THEM TO ORBIT AROUND HER. THE ORIGINAL HOME BIRTH. AND MAYBE SHE INSPECTS EACH PLANET BEFORE CHOOSING EARTH FROM THE MIDDLE OF THE LITTER. SHE TRAILS HER FINGERS ACROSS ITS FRAGILE SURFACE. ACCIDENTALLY CREATING CREVICES AND SURFACE FLAWS, CONTINENT AND OCEAN. IF GOD IS A BLACK WOMAN AND SHE CREATED THE PLANETS, WHERE WOULD ADAM AND EVE FIT IN? EVENTUALLY SHE HAD TO CREATE LIFE. BLACK WOMAN GOD ECLIPSING THE LIGHT AS SHE SPUN EARTH AROUND ON THE PAD OF HER FINGER, WONDERING WHAT WAS MISSING. A DARK PLANET REFLECTING HER OWN SKIN AND ITS LAND. HER EYES IN ITS WATER. FOR THE FIRST TIME SHE SEES HERSELF. AND IT IS A BIRTH RATHER THAN A CREATION AS SHE GATHERS DUST FROM THE UNIVERSE, WEAVING THEM TOGETHER WITH BREATH, MAYBE WHISPERING AN INCANTATION FOR LIFE OR FOR STRENGTH BEFORE DROPPING INTO THE DARK AND LISTENING FOR THE SPLASH. AND SHE WAITED. IF GOD IS A BLACK WOMAN, WOULD SHE HAVE GRANTED LUCIFER HIS OWN DOMAIN? WOULD THERE EVEN BE A HELL? WHAT DOES IT MEAN IF LUCIFER IS A BLACK ANGEL OR A BLACK MAN? OR WOULD SHE HAVE PICKED HIM UP BETWEEN HER FOREFINGER AND THUMB, CRUSHING HIM INTO DUST BEFORE SCATTERING HIS REMAINS ACROSS THE GALAXY. I DOUBT SHE WOULD PUT UP WITH HIS DRAMA. [ APPLAUSE ]>>WE HAVE A RESPONSIBILITY TO GIVE COMMENTARY TO THE TIMES IN WHICH WE LIVE. ANY HISTORICAL PERIOD THAT YOU LOOK AT, IF YOU WANT TO KNOW WHAT PEOPLE WERE REALLY THINKING, CHECK OUT THE ART THAT WAS CREATED DURING THAT TIME AND THAT WILL REALLY GIVE YOU SOME INSIGHT OF WHAT PEOPLE WERE ACTUALLY EXPERIENCING, EVEN OUTSIDE OF WHAT’S WRITTEN IN HISTORY BOOKS. AND I FEEL LIKE COLUMBUS IS ON THE VERGE OF ITS OWN RENAISSANCE. LIKE, SO MANY WONDERFUL THINGS ARE HAPPENING.

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