My Vocal Memoir: Oratory on Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday Photo Credit: Gus Bennett, Jr. h/t Dr. Yaba Blay #PrettyPeriod365
Easter Sunday
Photo Credit: Gus Bennett, Jr. h/t Dr. Yaba Blay #PrettyPeriod365

Fitting in

A black Catholic girl’s poetry from an Easter Sunday memory

white stockings never covered my ashy legs.
I wore frilly white ankle socks
buckled into black patent leather shoes.
I tried to dye the ash, like colored eggs, in Vaseline intensive care lotion
kept close at hand for the long drive on Easter Sunday.

granddaddy drove the family to downtown Northeast
with granny in the front seat
mama, aunt bernetta, and me in the back.

We were picture perfect in bonnets and a Fedora
as we crossed the MD/DC border with our contraband;
straight-from-the-oven
sweet potatoes in Karo syrup,
homemade buns hidden on laps
and a pot of greens safely tucked in the trunk.

The previous Easter, my great Uncle Don
bought a deed embedded on my tongue.
Oratory was mandatory back then
and in 1970 a dollar bill was the ultimate reward.
There will be candy!

Handing me a laminated wallet-sized card
of a poem by Saint Francis of Assissi
and a copy of Lincoln’s Gettyburg address,
Uncle Don bent down to my level and
staring right into my eyes he gently said:
“Memorize it!”

The deed of recitation evoked the intangible promise of Emancipation,
resurrecting an origin myth to be consumed and repeated from memory.

In the backseat, in muted fright
and last-minute trepidation,
I madly memorized the verses as we arrived.

Standing in the living room with everyone watching
I read aloud: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…”
And then attempted Lincoln’s longer address “…that this nation
shall have a new birth of freedom.”

We girls and women have been fighting for
any benefits from such bargains ever since.

With the piece-work memory of a grown woman,
I can still stitch together a couple of those lines:

Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Doubt … faith.
Darkness … light.

Just before Cathechism, a process of confirming one’s faith through recitation,
my mother pulled me from the Catholic Church
that had forbade her attendance since my birth.
Forgiveness was never granted
for her unmarried sin.

Let this ode be my prayer, my Gettysburg address,
conjured to remedy the injury and harm visited upon
the souls of child-bearing girls and women.

I conjure Uncle Don’s command to memorize it
to embrace a sometimes intangible promise,
with no need to seek consolation.
Let our good and best works voice our presence.

Resurrect love for yourself and others as best you can.
Be still and know we are more than mere girls or women.
We are a light in the darkness
We bring hope and life despite a world of despair
We occupy a space of divine love
waiting to be resurrected in ourselves
right
now.

Written by Kyra Gaunt ©2016

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Juneteenth: First-Hand Literacy and Freedom

 “…i wanted to be a new person and my rebirth was stifled not by the master but the slave.” – Nikki Giovanni.

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Celebrating Juneteenth – and a letter from my great great grandfather

The United States freed its last slaves on this day June 18, 1865, 149 years ago. Officially commemorated as Juneteenth, this holiday goes unmarked and unnoticed by the majority Americans, including many African-Americans. Which begs the question: why? When TED Fellow Kyra Gaunt received a copy of a letter from her great great grandfather, a former slave who had escaped via the Underground Railroad, his handwritten words opened her eyes to how limited, fragmented and ephemeral narratives of slavery still are. A shorter version of this story appears on the ideas page of TED.com.

NOTE: I hope readers will consider that online literacy leads to emancipation for black girls and others, too.

In March 2014, I was struck with tears after opening an email from my mother that began: “Read this history about your great, great, great grandfather. Wow, what a rich heritage!”

Attached was a copy of a letter, titled “LETTER FROM SHERIDAN FORD, IN DISTRESS.” I was a letter my great, great, great grandfather had written in 1855, 159 years ago on February 15th. He’d recently escaped slavery in Portsmouth, Virginia, on the Underground Railroad. I was reading the words of one of my kin — in his own hand.

The letter had been sent to my family by a reporter from Portsmouth, who explained that Ford had written this letter to a friend once he’d reached Philadelphia, entreating him to help his (first) wife and children, who were in jail at the time. They would be left behind; a causality of emancipation. The letter had been published in 1872, in a book by William Still — a conductor on the Underground Railroad.

Here is the text in full: 

LETTER FROM SHERIDAN FORD, IN DISTRESS.

BOSTON, MASS., Feb. 15th, 1855.

No. 2, Change Avenue.

 MY DEAR FRIEND:—Allow me to take the liberty of addressing you and at the same time appearing troublesomes you all friend, but subject is so very important that i can not but ask not in my name but in the name of the Lord and humanity to do something for my Poor Wife and children who lays in Norfolk Jail and have Been there for three month i Would open myself in that frank and hones manner. Which should convince you of my cencerity of Purpoest don’t shut your ears to the cry’s of the Widow and the orphant & i can but ask in the name of humanity and God for he knows the heart of all men. Please ask the friends humanity to do something for her and her two lettle ones i cant do any thing Place as i am for i have to lay low Please lay this before the churches of Philadelphaise beg them in name of the Lord to do something for him i love my freedom and if it would do her and her two children any good i mean to change with her but cant be done for she is Jail and you most no she suffer for the jail in the South are not like yours for any thing is good enough for negros the Slave hunters Says & may God interpose in behalf of the demonstrative Race of Africa Whom i claim desendent i am sorry to say that friendship is only a name here but i truss it is not so in Philada i would not have taken this liberty had i not considered you a friend for you treaty as such Please do all you can and Please ask the Anti Slavery friends to do all they can and God will Reward them for it i am shure for the earth is the Lords and the fullness there of as this note leaves me not very well but hope when it comes to hand it may find you and family enjoying all the Pleasure life Please answer this and Pardon me if the necessary sum can be required i will find out from my brotherinlaw i am with respectful consideration.

SHERIDAN W. FORD.

 

The Debt of Forced Migration: Local Memory

I was overcome with heavy tears at what this letter meant to me. His writing spoke of options I never knew or realized slaves had even as a professor. He was literate and well versed in writing by 1855, and he clearly articulates the value his freedom in ways no Hollywood script by Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino could ever aptly capture. This was not mediated by images but across generations of forgotten memories of my kin.

Here was a letter written phonetically in respectably lucid language, five years after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act from the Compromise of 1850 — which ended Reconstruction and led to the discriminatory, second-class ranking Jim Crow laws. My great great grandfather could have been snatched back to the South if ever found in the North by his lawful captors.

This is more than any memory passed down orally, and better than any autobiography published in a book. It was evidence, a liberated truth. It was a local knowledge penned in a formerly enslaved man’s full grasp of a belief in God, his humanity and the justice in being newly free.

It seemed like a miracle to read the words of someone who I am related to, who I could trace to my bloodline instead of some generalized story about slavery.

Why? White Americans aren’t the only ones who don’t like to remember slavery and its history.

 

 1863: 5 Million Freed, 1 Million Lost

According to the 2013 US Census, there are 41 million people who identify as African-American and I could lay money on that fewer than 1% will publicly celebrate the 150th anniversary of June 19th, or what we call “Juneteenth” — also known as Freedom Day and Emancipation Day — when it rolls around next year, even though the holiday is recognized in 43 of our so-called united states.

On that day in 1865, the state of Texas freed the last enslaved Africans in America. They were not slaves, they were Africans. General Order No. 3 was announced in Galveston: 

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States [originally signed two years earlier by Abraham Lincoln], all slaves are free. … The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

African Americans don’t have many stories about our enslaved ancestors or their escape.

When I grew up no one talked about slaves inside black family life. Slaves were objects in public debates, always referred to in some generalized manner and the talk was always “we come from slaves” (not enslaved Africans). We were property – not our humanity or ethnicity. And we had our nationality stripped with every stroke of a slavemaster’s whip.

Most people today know they set “us” free in 1863. But no one ever knew told me that Lincoln freed 5 million enslaved African people and that 1 million of the newly liberated women, men and children died within the first year. With Emancipation came starvation and other effects of being freed among Southerners who still wished to chase former slaves with bloodhounds in the name of their own right to life, liberty and property.

Kunte Kinte
The birth of Kunte Kinte in the ABC Miniseries Roots by Alex Haley, 1977. Maya Angelou and Cicely Tyson appear with infant. The book was released in 1976 during the bicentennial celebration of the founding of the USA.

African American remembering is more lore than lived memory. Most often we cherry-pick popular slave narratives or mediated memories like those in Alex Haley’s ABC mini-series Roots: “Behold! The only thing greater than yourself!” Comedy is sadly much more common. Our memories are like second-hand clothes, mediated scripts of third-world stories. They carry no local knowledge or memory at all of the broken backs who once carried them. Mostly, we nurse broken memories of forced migrations thrown overboard.

When we do get to the real memories, we try to tell “the right” story, the “grotesque” how-could-they-do-this-to-us story, or the capitalism-was-built-on-the-back-of-the-debt-paid-with-our-free-labor-and-forced-sex story. There’s Toni Morrison’s story of a mother’s love expressed in the salvation of killing her children rather than allowing them live as chattel slaves. But mother’s love is supposed to deny such a thing as infanticide. 

Most African-Americans will never even have read the autobiography of Frederick Douglass. I haven’t, though I have quoted a part about singing. I didn’t even know it was from his tongue. I own a recording of his words loudly declaimed by esteemed actor Ossie Davis on a set of recordings about African American music:

Slaves were expected to sing as well as to work. A silent slave was not liked.

And thus, we continue our silence in a post-racial America.

 

Today, many African Americans do not know Douglass’s literate freedom nor Harriet Jacobs. We remain in the bondage of our own lack of curiosity surrounded by institutional miseducation about who we were and who we can be. So reading the handwritten words of my grandfather’s grandfather first-hand — it changed something in me.

It turns out that we were more than anything I had ever learned — more literate, more compassionate, more enlightened — and we must be re-membered to more of these kinds of memories. The inscribed evidence: “i love my freedom.” An ownership of not just one’s liberty but of one’s own literacy. I can now claim my descendance from the Race of Africa from the words of my own kin, from within my immediate family, and not from some televised fiction. No more silence, writing next time.

Find William Still’s book, The Underground Railroad, in which Sheridan Ford’s letter was originally published, on Gutenberg.org.

OSCAR UNCHAINED: Django is More Nuanced than a B Movie, Kareem!

The blogosphere of Facebook, Twitter and sites like HuffPo have been amplifying an unsuspecting yet powerful  voice of reason, irony, and insight–the former championship basketball player from the Bucks and the Lakers, one of my favs, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as writer.

Captain Hook - the sky hook.
Captain Hook – the sky hook.

He’s been offering his critiques on popular media from the HBO series “Girls” to his most recent POV on the Best Picture nomination of director Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012).

In the early days of Abdul-Jabbar’s professional sports career, he like many other African-American athletes faced racism. In a recent interview that appeared in the Harvard Business Review (biz types love to explore links in unusual places these days), the former champion formerly known as Lew Alcindor was asked:

In the NCAA and the NBA you occasionally faced racism. How did you play through those distractions?

[Abdul-Jabbar]: If you let it distract you, you’re playing into their hands. Their whole purpose is to distract you and prevent you from succeeding. And for me, success was the goal. My success and the success of other black Americans was exactly what would silence people who indulged in racism. So it was “Keep your eyes on the prize.” That was one of the messages of the civil rights movement, and I tried to do it.

Since retirement, Adbul-Jabbar has shared is other loves with his followers including his love of the writing of Alexander Dumas (1802-1870), who actually identified himself as a mulatto, of African descent, in French society. Abdul-Jabbar offers on his official website:

Once when someone insulted [Dumas] about his racial background, he said, “It is true. My father was a mulatto, my grandmother was a negress, and my great-grandparents were monkeys. In short, sir, my pedigree begins where yours ends.”

I think Kareem identifies with someone like Dumas at this latter stage in life because he can find his successes off the court speaking to issues of race that matter to him whereever that may be. TV and film is a great place to find your voice as a critic of American culture. What’s noticeable about Kareem is that he loves irony not unlike the comment by Dumas. So why wouldn’t he love Tarantino’s film. What’s not to love!?!

His take on Django Unchained gives us an unexpected skyhook to the right that shows his love of things far beyond just basketball. I’ve enjoy reading his thoughts on popular culture while also observing how  readers respond since most times our society’s expectation of sports figures, especially black men, does not include listening to them think.

kareem-django-unchainedKareem’s review of Django appeared this week in Esquire magazine, distinguished as an early publisher of “New Journalism” and awarded often for its provocative pieces targeting men.  In the Esquire review Kareem wrote,

Basically, Django Unchained is a B movie. A damn fine B movie, but still a B movie. That’s not an insult. I’ve been in B movies, many of my favorite films are B movies, and B movies tend to make a lot more money than A movies.

Despite its slavery setting, Django Unchained isn’t an exploration of the subject. It offers no critical insights into the circumstances, no nuances exploring the political realities (as Lincoln does). In the end, slavery is a prop to excite audience emotion and motivate the action. With the exception of Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and Stephen, the characters are fairly stereotypical. Pro-slavery characters are grotesque cartoons and those against (mostly the slaves themselves) are admirable and inspiring. And that makes Django melodrama, not literature. It offers no insights, only the most familiar observations.


MY SKYHOOK (ON THE OPPOSITE END OF THE COURT)

Abdul-Jabbar is getting a few minutes “court-time” in the media for his take on Django, which I too loved at first glance. An appearance following the piece on Conan O’Brian’s show is making the rounds via a viral video but since I don’t have cable or watch late night shows online, I first learned of the piece on the Colorlines site under “Now in Racial Justice” section via Facebook.

While Kareem’s critique is likeable and definitely worth the read, I beg to differ with his comment Django offering “no critical insights into the circumstances [of slavery], no nuances exploring the political realities (as Lincoln does).”

A noted scholar, Dr. Jim Downs (Sick from Freedom: African American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction), mentioned at an Emancipation 150 event hosted by WNYC-FM at the Greene Space in January, that Django depicted the experience and terror of being a slave much more so than Spielberg’s Lincoln did at any level.

Downs said that of the 5 million slaves freed by Lincoln on January 1, 1863, 1 million died in the first year. A quarter of the population starved, froze to death, couldn’t subsistence farm or other. Whole families died in their newfound freedom.  In Django Unchained, one need only recall the scene using the dog to attack the runaway slave nearer to the end of the film (having taken us many places to get there emotionally). But there was also the scene soon thereafter of the lock box in the heat of the midday sun that Kerry Washington’s character “Broomhilda von Schaft” is removed from when Django (Jamie Foxx) arrives to save her. In that moment, we witness Django’s lack of freedom to scream her suffocation while we must suffer with him waiting for their moment of escape. We are slaves watching these scenes.

Just one glimpse of either scene (and there are others) that are far from the workings of what one might call a B movie. This film had the power to emotionally wrench me from this present moment back into the realities of slavery I have never witnessed being born just before the Civil Rights Act was even introduced.


EMANCIPATION: DJANGO vs. LINCOLN

There is no amount of “nuance” that could explore that reality effectively and neither Spielberg nor Daniel Day Lewis took me there in Lincoln. The genre of film, much more sophisticated than a B movie, that consummate filmmaker Tarantino is divining in, allows us to peer into a reality that historical writing or memory cannot capture at the level of social phenomenon today. Film is pivotal in this way and lest those of us how know better forget, too often our “top” filmmakers will not allow such depiction when it comes to African American subjects or subjects that not only put our eyes on the prize of freedom but call our minds to the injustices and exploitation of people of color or women and women of color. These films are still not made for public reception.

So I’ll take Django Unchained any day over Lincoln (which I enjoyed though a slow film for me). Yet I think it’s wrong to compare the two films. Just because they occupy the same historical reference point does not mean they are comparable films, films one should compare. They are not the same genre, the same space or the same race of film. Correlation in this case would be wrong in my view. They context of the 150th anniversary is really the only connection as far as films go.

And I want to remind myself and others that Django Unchained as a Oscar nominated film for Best Picture is not simply Tarantino’s film to claim. This film would not be what it has become without the cooperation of its black actors as well as its nonblack actors, all of whom contribute to its brilliant representation. One sorely needed, whose time finally came, among African Americans of all classes but, more so, among nonblacks of all classes–perhaps a more likely candidate of a post-racial Obama era than any.

This film belongs to its co-producers including Reggie Hudlin and even more so it belongs to us–the people. It’s the closest thing to a people’s history of slavery re-presented in a modern skin. It’s all about how we the people read Django Unchained as-text and the fact that so many people have been moved into public discourse around the film, into a discourse about slavery, film-making, genre, acting, irony, history and injustice, and more. All of that makes it an Oscar worthy contender.

I doubt it will win Best Picture. Why? Because of the subject matter, its treatment and the reaction of its black audience members who loved it too much for some fellow theatergoers. That kind of behavior “insubordination” during the Obama era can’t be allowed…at least that’s what people say.

I’m willing to be wrong.  Django did something no other film has done for me. It allowed me to have a fantasy of revenge IN PUBLIC, in mixed company. It freed my laughter that hides pain, my sorrow that hides decades of struggle to be free, it unchained people’s disbelief and made possible riding off into the sunset for once. All that made me feel free in a way that I never thought possible in public, in mixed company. It was liberating and OK.

The film also provided a kind of vindication for white guilt with which anyone whose taught racism courses or courses involved black culture must constantly contend. This was a depiction of a white man, the hero, who let his compassion lead him to sacrifice himself for those considered less human than other white men. Christoph Waltz’s portrayal of Dr. King Schultz does that for us, but let us not forget it was the writing and the film direction that allowed him to freely act that part, portray that possible reality.

So my vote Sunday night is for Django Unchained for Best Picture 2012 and much more. If it doesn’t win, I’ll be ok. The film will remain to save the day.


3 THINGS I NEVER KNEW ABOUT DJANGO

I hope you find this trivia as interesting as I did.

  1. Although the film is technically a part of the western genre, Quentin Tarantino preferred to refer to the film as a “southern” due to the films setting in America’s deep south.
  2. Leonardo DiCaprio, who portrays villain Calvin Candie in this film, was originally the first actor choice for the role of antagonist Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino‘s previous film Inglourious Basterds. However, Tarantino decided that a fluent German-speaking actor should portray the character, and the part went to Christoph Waltz, who portrays Dr. King Schultz in this film, marking Waltz’s second film collaboration with Tarantino. DiCaprio can however speak some German.
  3. Director Quentin Tarantino revealed at Comic-Con that Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington‘s characters are meant to be the great great great grandparents of the character John Shaft from the Shaft movies. An overt reference to this connection can be found in Kerry Washington’s character’s full name: Broomhilda Von Shaft.  (all from IMDb.com)