My father was the one who created in me the desire to learn to read as a very young child, and he introduced me to the joy that could come from immersing myself in a story contained within the pages of a book. But he never really read books for himself. He was a coach – a sports aficionado – so that was how he spent his free time.
During one particular summer I commuted between Charleston, West Virginia, where I lived and Huntington, the nearby city where I was taking a grad lit class at Marshall University. I would arrive home after the drive and put my books onto the dining room table, grab a snack, take a break, and then return to begin my studies. One day as I got ready to read, I noticed my book was not there. I went to ask my dad if he had seen it, and low and behold, I found him seated out on our porch, reading my copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God. Later on the book reappeared on the corner of the table.
The next day it happened again, so I asked him, “How do you like that book you’re reading?”
And he said, “That Janie is a pistol.” He also picked up on the famous line about the Black woman being “the mule of the world.”
So I thought, “Daddy is really getting into this book.” I think he found ease in reading the vernacular dialect of the characters, as their speech most likely reminded him of the way the people in the community of his southern boyhood home in Lexington, Virginia sounded in the 1920’s when he was a child.
You gave me a moment where, for the first time, I, the daughter studying to become an English teacher, was able to offer my father a book and watch him enjoy it, as he had done for me when I was a little girl. You had captured him with your language. For me though, it was the characterization of Janie’s life journey, finding a love that would not stifle her but would welcome expression and provide an everlasting joy.
Reading your book was like we had both just unwrapped a special gift. For that dear Zora, I adore ya.
With love of the literary kind,
Carol Richardson McCullough
The tall building loomed ahead, a massive structure against a clouded grey sky. Still it stood, no more movement, broken elevators, sisters accosted on the stairwells. Nothing.
All the tenants vacated months earlier and the whole thing shut down five months prior. All that activity, movement, hustle, done.
Poverty and pain stacked up tall in a high rise. So much spread out would be a blight on the fair city so they raised up a monument to concentrate the bad stuff and contain it around 23rd Street in North Philly. But “studies had shown” such a configuration was not helpful to anyone’s growth and development. I thought all the high-rise projects had been done away with years and years ago.
The phone call came unexpectedly. I’d been so sick I stayed in bed all week only moving from beneath the covers to rush down the hall to the bathroom and back. Taking small sips of Gatorade to rehydrate, all I’d had to eat was pink Pepto tabs. That’s all I could keep down, or in, me. I answered the phone in no mood for conversation. The voice at the other end informed me that my name had come to the top of the housing authority’s list and I needed to meet him at the office to go see the place and then sign the lease. I told him of my sick state and asked if we might postpone until Monday, hoping the weekend might give me a chance to recover. He agreed, and so that next Monday I struck off into unknown territory.
How was William Penn’s approach to planning a city unique? What were the key elements in his plan?
William Penn’s Penn’s Woods colony, 45,000 square miles granted to him in the New World as King Charles’ debt payment to his father, was a unique opportunity to plan a “holy Experiment” where Quakers and others could freely worship in a new society where Natives would be included, respected and recognized to be kin with all creation. Protestants were given the right to vote at 21 and hold political office. He established a Friend’s Public School in 1689 to promote education and vocational training.
Penn’s Surveyor General, Thomas Holmes, designed a green country town where each house had grounds on either side for gardens orchards or green fields. Penn directed the creation of parks and “Publik Houses,” community-gathering places on every block. The city design allowed for four squares within the city’s four corner quadrants to be set aside for physical recreation, and a ten-acre Center Square to be used as a House of Public Affairs. Streets were laid out on a grid, with east-west named after trees and north-south numbered. The city’s design was unique in its vision, laid out with a structured plan to bring order to nature, a hybrid of rural and city, with the city central and rural factors more on the edge.
Another factor within Penn’s design was the foundation of acceptance and cooperation laid out in the very beginning. Quakers and Lenape shared similar beliefs in the Divinity of all beings. As long as they saw each other as kindred spirits, universal brothers who shared and respected nature and each other, it went well. But as liquor, fraud, corruption and war later entered, the benevolent coexistence where Natives would be led to Christ “by gentle and just measures” broke down.
I caught a bus on the corner from my house which traveled a route until it was time to transfer to a connecting bus into a part of the city with which I was unfamiliar. I’d heard about bad things happening in the neighborhood where I was heading. This particular day was sunny and hot. No need for the ever-present just-in-case umbrella I carried. I rode the bus surveying the surroundings which looked typical, row homes on crowded streets, no yards, not much green, bricks, sidewalks, asphalt streets, corner stores. I got off at the stop, walked to the next corner and turned, then took a straight shot three and a half long blocks until I came to a foreboding cluster of buildings with some sort of security guard house in the center. Here we go I thought as I walked up to the windowed door and started my reason for being there. I was directed to the office in another building where I was instructed to have a seat and wait for the man I’d spoken to on the phone to meet me. After a short wait while I read posters on the walls and absorbed the heat of the day, he arrived.
What is the “argument” of Benjamin West’s painting “Penn’s Treaty with the Indians”? What details in the painting are most significant?
Benjamin West’s painting, “Penn’s Treaty with the Indians, 1771- 1772,” depicts a scene where Penn arrives on the banks of the Delaware with his arms outstretched wide, coming in peace with a small band of Quakers to share the land the Lenape already inhabit, in a mutually harmonious coexistence. They stepped onto the shores with the promise of being “good neighbors.” We see no weapons drawn, no threat of violence; rather both groups are facing each other, gazing at each other with rapt attention. A native woman in one fore corner attends to her baby and small child while on the opposite corner two young white men look on. The colors in the painting are mostly the colors of the natural world- blue sky with puffy white cloud cover, lush green of trees reflected in the green waistcoats and vest of some of Penn’s men and even in the blanket (or robe) of a Native man across on the other side of the canvas. Penn’s jacket and knickers are a drab earthen brown. There are settlement buildings the color of wood in the background. The shore is visible off to the side, but the characters involved in the hearing, interpreting and agreeing to the treaty are most prominent, spreading across the entire foreground setting.
The painting represents “The Beginning,” a more harmonious time. It was created just as things were stirring into the even of the Revolution. It harkens back to the more peaceable beginning of the colony. Elements of the earliest technologies- maps, ships, clothe, the written treaty- are seen, along with the prevalence of Nature… to be harnessed and later corrupted into wealth gained at the expense of the original inhabitants… is also visible. But at the moment depicted, we see a pledge of peace.
He got the keys and said, “Let’s go see the apartment.” And off we went, to another building and the first thing was that door. It was thick and metal and heavy. Not your usual welcome home type of front door, but a big grey heavy steel thing that required a struggle to open, and a clank which put you in the mind of a jail cell—or a slave ship—when it slammed shut behind you.
Then, over the threshold and into the vestibule, it hit me. Smacked me upside the face, opened my eyes wide, assaulted my nostrils: a stench reminiscent of a deep South highway filling station bathroom with the pool of poorly aimed urine collected on the floor, the scent rising in a hot cloud ignited by the heat of sun high overhead. It made me want to turn and run away, but I soldiered onward.
I had barely gotten through the door, yet already I’d been transported into another world.
What does Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography tell us about colonial Philadelphia? Do you believe his account? Why was Philadelphia sometimes called the “Athens of America”?
Ben Franklin arrived in Philadelphia fatigued from travel, dirty, poor, not knowing a soul. Over the years he fashioned himself into one of the city’s—and the nation’s—most illustrious citizens, accomplished in many areas, a Renaissance man of sorts: author, statesman, scientist, inventor, diplomat and more, who seemingly rose on his own under the volition of his own hard work. So many things we attribute to Franklin today: he opened the first lending library, started the first fire company; he was civic minded, opened the first public hospital, the first university, and he is noted for the many catchy witticisms and truth bombs written in his Poor Richard’s Almanac.
Philadelphia was the place to create himself, free of caste systems or aristocratic limitations. He invented himself here as a young man and developed into a highly accomplished man. He was free to rise here, and he did. What’s not to believe about his account in the Autobiography…? Of course, he was writing, looking back over his life, from the vantage of old age. Today if there were any doubt of the veracity or embellishment, he could just call it a memoir and stay on the safe side. I take him at his word, even though he did forget to mention the slaves he owned who probably helped build his little university… But I digress.
Philadelphia developed into a city with a lot to offer. There was access to literature, the arts, scientific invention, natural history preservation, portrait galleries, and classical architecture. The abundance of arts and culture made this city the “Athens of America.” Philadelphia became the capital and center of American civilization, looked upon with wonderment by the world as a neoclassical-styled gem.
“The apartment is on the eighth floor,” the man said. “We’ll take the elevator.”
Down the hall, turn, down another hall, Hello to an older man shuffling to make his way wherever, then press the button and wait. Wait, wait some more. Finally the door opens and we go into the tightest, narrowest, shakiest elevator I’ve been on, perhaps in my lifetime.
We ride up to the fourth floor, then it stops and the door opens. “This one is broken, so we’ll catch the other one up the rest of the way,” he says. So we exit, turn, walk down a hall, turn another way, walk some more and now I’m thinking it would be a major effort and a long excursion for my son to even make it from his school bus through the labyrinthine path, through the building, and upstairs into his own home, safely.
Safety. That would be another issue. To live in that place would be like putting a bulls-eye target on his back as he moved like a carnival duck trying to dodge danger in The Projects’ high tower. And my daughter? As the second elevator creaked its way upward, jolting and leaping, my mind wondered how many young girls (and boys, for that matter) had been accosted, harassed or raped in these slow-assed broken down elevators. I could feel a thick cloud of oppression, and danger, settling over me.
The doors opened and we and we walked down the last hall, another scent permeated the hallway. This one was powerful, too. Herb. Weed. Pot. It was so strong, I could have caught a contact high had I lingered. My proposed new neighbors smoked pot boldly in the daytime and didn’t give a natural fuck who might be walking through.
Key in the door opens up a semi-sparkling clean apartment. Kitchenette with tiny stove and refrigerator, new. Freshly painted white cabinets. Small, but adequate for my scaled back life. A quarter-turn put me in the so-called dining area, really just an extension of what still should have been the kitchen. Tiny living room-like area. Tinier bathroom. Three bedrooms, you guessed it, small. One like the master bedroom closet I once had in a previous life… But I digress. I took a short quick step into the largest bedroom, which would be mine, and looked out the window to catch whatever view I would have. There was just an unrecognizable barren skyscape which shouted at me, “You’re on the backside of nowhere!” loud and clear.
As I surveyed the place I could tell they had tried, had really made the attempt to accommodate me and my small family. They had cleaned up, painted, even given me what looked like brand new appliances. I gave it the quick once over, knowing I couldn’t be choosy.
Once upon a time, tenants were given three different choices at three different sites to select one they found most appealing. Those days were gone. So many families needed so much help, the city could barely keep up. Actually, it couldn’t keep up at all. You either took what they gave you when your name came up or you plummeted back down to the bottom of the list and waited another five years, or more.
We had gone through so much, endured so much, come through so much to get to this point. This place. It wasn’t a house, as I’d been led to believe. I only had two children so I couldn’t be given the option of a single-family dwelling. Instead, we’d be stacked like sardines in a can, on pot and piss scented shelves, and this was what my fair city was offering me, and expected me to take before the next needy person on the list grabbed it.
As I looked out that window, I made the decision that by no means did I find the offer acceptable and by the grace of God I would find another way.
I told the man I appreciated how they had attempted to renovate the place and make it clean and fresh and if there was a way someone could take a mechanical crane device and just pick it up out of the building and airlift it to another location I would take it. But, situated where it was, I told him I could not do it. I said my son is on the spectrum and it would be a struggle for him to even find his way home. He told me there were special needs kids who lived there.
I replied “I’m sure there are, and that’s a shame.”
No child, nobody should live like that.
When I got back onto the street, I was a little turned around, jolted by the intensity of the whole experience. Three years wait to be let down abruptly, to find out that The City’s help was no help at all was unsettling, disorienting. Before I struck out into gunshot or robbery or whatever the criminality special of the day might have been, I knew I needed to be sure I was headed back into the right direction to catch my bus. I saw a police car on the street, so I approached and asked the officer inside, a young woman, for directions to the bus stop. When she told me, I repeated them with what must have been a confused look on my face, so she said to get in and she would take me there. Another police officer drove up from out of nowhere and asked her if everything was alright and if she needed any help.
The backseat had no upholstery, no padding, just metal—hot from the sunstill beating down. The distance from the front seat to the passenger area was very short. It took me a moment to calculate the proprioceptive aspect and figure out how to configure my body to get it into that tight spot. I could only imagine the tall young men shoved hastily in the back, lanky legs twisted at an acute angle, head banged on the doorframe, body slammed. Think of Freddie Gray, whose spine was severed during a rough ride in the back of a police car perhaps not unlike this one.
Later, I realized that I must have been in a place so bad, and stood out so much, that the officer didn’t want to risk me getting lost alone. That’s deep.
Who was Richard Allen and what role did he play in Philadelphia history? What is the significance of the Weccacoe Playground today?
Richard Allen was a former slave who purchased his own freedom and became a founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He became a Methodist because he felt their explanation was plain and understandable. He originally worshiped at St. George’s Church. As slave owners and other white parishioner numbers increased, they forced Blacks to give up their seats and go into the balcony. In 1787 when they were harassed attempting to pray at the altar, they walked out and forced their own church splitting into two groups. Richard Allen became the founding minister of the Methodist branch, known as Mother BethelAME. Absolam Jones led the other branch, St. Thomas Episcopal. Allen’s church, Mother Bethel became known as a safe haven on the Underground Railroad. At one point, Allen was mistakenly imprisoned as a runaway slave, but was released once his manumission papers were produced. He successfully sued the slave catcher for false imprisonment, who was then imprisoned himself when he had no money to pay the fine.
In 1810 Mother Bethel Church purchased property at Queen and Lawrence Streets and used it until 1864 as a private cemetery, called Bethel Burying Ground. This land was just over the Philadelphia borderline proper, as Blacks were not allowed to be buried in the city. As the church struggled to ward off foreclosure, the trustees rented the grounds in 1869 for wagon storage. Instead, when the renter dumped wastes from his sugar refinery onto the graves causing deterioration, the cemetery was then sold to the city. In 1908 a city playground was established and the area was renamed Weccacoe.
Today the remains of more than 3,000 slaves and free Blacks from colonial times lie underneath the site of a community center complete with a playground and tennis courts with toilet wastes piped through. The significant question is whether the city will treat this National Historical site as a sacred resting place, or continue to desecrate and disrespect black folk unto death and beyond by allowing tennis matches and playground frivolity to trample along the topside while excrement rolls through what should be a resting place.
A thundering boom proceeds the crumbling fall as puffs of grey cloud the morning sky.
A tumbling, a caving in, a cloud of dust and debris. Like the childhood rhyme:
The building implodes as did, I imagine, the lives of former displaced residents, to varying degrees. Where do they all live now?
The new housing commissioner once showed up at the place unannounced, in his suit and tie, reverse incognito. Someone told him that if he did not leave he would be shot.
He was quoted as saying, “No child, no person should live in a place like that.”
MY THEORY OF HISTORICAL CHANGE
History is vital-
Created and re-created every day
Like a work of art, there is shading and shadows
A selective use of pieces to advance or highlight
A view of the time
History becomes a collection of stories we revere
Vs. stories we vilify and forget
When it becomes convenient or necessary to change the script
Excavations uncover new facts while generations die off
And take their testimonies with them
Documentation is lost/destroyed
People who witnessed before the Change
Griots go to their graves, silencing the Narrative
And the stage is set to make History, become whatever the Teller wants it to be
S/He who tells the Story
Creates the History
And It Changes to the degree that its contemporary Seekers uncover it—
And cover it back up again.
When I was in high school, I decided I’d like to be a poet, to capture images and make them twinkle and sparkle off the page with luminosity. I dabbled and tinkered for a decade or two and then—BOOM—a major event changed my life and took all the poetry right out of it.
It’s been a process to rediscover and reclaim my intentions in a new place, respond and create, pick up shattered pieces and reconstruct beauty from brokenness.
I started simply with haiku.
Sonia Sanchez’s spirit inspires me.
I would love to turn my journals into memoir because there is a story I have to tell. Much has happened. Zora Neale Hurston wrote a book in 7 weeks to pay her rent. Perhaps I will do that, too.
I could write about how I came to be here in the first place
But the ink won’t flow out of my pen—
How it wasn’t my first or second choice, or even my third
But we came here for the offer of a J.O.B.—not for me, but for him
How I drove the last leg of the journey up north
From down South in Alabama—another place I did not want to go
Fought the urge to detour back to my Appalachian birthplace
Did not waver at the Maryland-DC border where we’d lived before
I could write about how everyone was tired of singing songs and playing road games
Sitting down in a van that kept on rolling on for 12 long hours
Past fields and farms and bridges and cities and buildings
And highways with traffic speeding up and slowing down
Sunshine and rainstorms—cars trucks vans—long stretches of white lines
flowing onward and upward Northward
Toward the promise of what could still be
If we could just make it there—
I could write about my relief as peaks of tall buildings
Finally painted a skyline and I thought
We’re almost there so put the pedal to the metal
And let’s GO—
Anticipation. Acceleration. Then abrupt scenery change
Those few skyscraper glimmers dimmed to
Darkened factories alongside the highway
Standing like scrappy men who’d been in a fight they’d lost
Broken windows like jaws full of knocked out teeth
How I thought “What’s happened to this place? Where’s the glitter and the glamour?”
Exit. Directional Switch. Turn around and try it again.
I could write about how I’d almost missed coming here altogether
Shot right past the place I could not recognize as
My destination city— a missed exit—
Could that have been my warning sign?
I could write about the early years here
How isolated I became trying to adjust
To dangers and fear and loneliness
Muggings carjackings brutalities quite horrible
Always happened someplace else, I’d heard on the news.
But in this, my new city, just down the street a man was shot dead. Too close for
So call me homemaker/homebody—
Transplanted stranger in a stranger land.
I could write about my family—
Young son baby girl on the way
Their father— but that part’s complicated
So skip ahead to his departure
Where the true story begins
I could write about what it means to be a mother
To have these unique beings, little essences of creation dependent on me
to get it right (the weight of responsibility)
They are the pure joy, the worthwhile product of it all.
I’d write how from the moment they were laid into my arms
They have enchanted me with the mystery of their wonderment
How sweet to see them grow and learn and blossom
Creative compassionate and caring citizens
Of the world we three created
I could write about this new stage
Where I can almost catch my breath
I’d create a space
That I would fill with a little something for myself—
FAMILY: A MURAL
Mama was the rainbow—beautiful originator— colorful sweetness
Daddy was the earth—foundational force for our family—bedrock strength,
supportive, orange in place of brown, looks like a basketball, which he coached
One above, one beneath, my loving support system.
I miss them.
My sister’s a white ghost now, because she died a decade
ago. We rivaled each other for our parents’ love till
we grew enough to know they loved us both, and we loved
each other. Now she’s a spirit in the sky, like the song,
or an angel. I miss her, too.
My son is the paint brush, continuing all the colors—
creative, making enough beauty to spread around
My daughter is a yellow star, luminous and bright.
She shines above the rest
I am the sunflower—I reach toward the sky and stand tall
in the warmth, but hard cold days make me shiver,
and drop my petals down to the ground. But I’m determined
to grow again, and I will, more beautiful than before.
1. Big Baby 1930’s
The tables have turned in the checkerboard-tiled kitchen
Ma-Ma in her apron, heels and hose sits silent
listening to me, a big chubby cherub-cheeked
baby boy clad only in a diaper.
My stance, hand on hip, elbow resting on the high chair
tray, leaning in at an angle one leg
crossed over the other commands the scene
showing I am in charge, for once, finally.
Though I still don’t have any words. My look
says it all, and she leans back into
the chair, wondering how we both
got scrambled into this mixed up
No you can’t get out. Just sit there
and think about what you have
and have not done, I say,
finally glad to say that for once
and watch her expression.
Silence. Except for the drip-drop-drip
of the faucet at the sink behind us.
2. Untitled, 1942
She’s finished her morning toast and juice.
Time for a smokey drag from the one
bit of elegance in the room
A mid-day moment stolen.
She wraps her arm around the big book
like she would the man—if she had one.
Imagination will have to do for this moment.
“Hot Romances” entrance her—almost curling her hair
without the rollers
For just a few moments she’s out of her drab kitchen
and into sexy love—
There’s steam at her shoulder, so it must be
NOT JUST WHISTLIN’ DIXIE
Moving to the Deep South was a journey of learning to conquer fears both newand old, taking big steps into new territory, leaving behind family and friends to carve a temporary safe spot in a place that had a history of not being readily welcoming and friendly. It was complicated by my not really wanting to move there at all. I wanted to move to At-lan-ta. Instead, my tiny family went to Ala-bama, where my ex landed a great job and I would settle into motherhood with our then two-year-old son.
I brought with me the recognition that this would not yet be “my time.” It had not yet festered into resentment, because it was all new, and fresh, and hope-filled. I brought a dose of fear of the unknown, coupled with remembrance of the horrible reputation of harshness and cruelty this place had historically held for my people, from our arrival to this country to the struggles of the 60’s and beyond.
When we first moved, though, we got a two-bedroom apartment in a place called Rainbow City. Rainbows are always surprising, though fleeting, coming along with sunshine after a hard rain. So, perhaps things wouldn’t be so bad at all.
As it turns out, I did not experience the kind of animosity I had expected from the place that pulled the Freedom Riders off the bus, but not before they set it on fire. So I had to leave behind my preconceived notion of how a section of the country would be, or at least to know that there were good folks to be found everywhere—if you searched.
“School girl me to collegiate me”
Charleston to Huntington
All essentials packed into the back of the
New suitcase set & trunk
Journey from Self to Motherhood: The “J Club”
-had a baby boy, didn’t want
epidural, Dr. placed one
anyway but it did not work,
so it was basically a natural
-Washington DC during the height of the
crack episodic. Treated everyone
like they were an addict. Took
my baby from my room for
24 hours. I couldn’t nurse
initially—became massively engorged
2nd time—baby girl in Philly
Easy breezy three-hour labor
“Across the Country and Halfway Back Again”
Washington DC to Seattle, WA to St. Paul, MN
-5 hour flight from Washington to Washington
-had sinus cold, ended up with painfully
stopped up ear, did not pop
for about a day and a half
-Rained 4 or 5 days of the week stay
-Most awesome round trip every,
2,000 miles in 4 days,
like a 9-5 job, wake up,
eat breakfast, DRIVE, maybe stop
to see a sight, then find hotel,
eat dinner, rest/sleep—
then do it all again
-St. Paul— I wore ¾ length pants
(east coast style, hadn’t quite
gotten to the Midwest yet—
some yuppie looking man asked
his wife was that a style or
was I wearing high waters
“Big Trip for a Little Girl”
-5 hour car ride from WV to Indianapolis
to visit my aunt, uncle, and cousins
WRITE MY BLOCK
On my street there’s a tree which marks time
Passing seasons show in the color of life
leaves—first bud, then blossom, then
leafy color, then gone.
All to do again once the cycle
On my street there’s a caged in front porch—
Makes me wonder who lives there and what
their status is
Bars and a lock make it hard to run away
On lockdown in your own house cannot be fun
On my street there’s attempts at renovation—
tall scaffolding serves some purpose, but
what I do not know. It’s been
going on forever, nothing is changing—
a bit of an eye sore, so just look away
On my street there’s people sitting out on their porches
They’ll speak if spoken to, so the effort is worth it
“Hello” here— “How you doin’” there—
it costs nothing to be friendly, might
save a lot of trouble down the line.
On my street there’s cars, and trash, and people,
going in and out of pastel colored doors.
Pepto pink and sunshine yellow, robin’s egg blue and sweet mint green
Doorways colored lively pastels lift the mood on my street scene
Two blocks down from the corner store—
Market-fresh produce is 20 blocks more
My traveling by foot mobile—
Makes it hard to procure a home-cooked meal
Still, we’re right across the bridge from the Art Museum
Do a “Rocky” up the steps and then carpe diem
Just a hop skip and jump away from Drexel and UPenn
Who knows? Perhaps we’ll all become scholars once again
Students are moving in from all over the place
Let’s document our history so we cannot be erased
On the edge of Mantua life is simple yet so sweet
It’s peaceful all along North 32nd Street.
Will the government
Keep its Promise to our Zone?
Sincerely hope so.
DUSTY ROSE COLORED ROCKING CHAIR
I am in the living room of my childhood, at the white house on the corner of Walnut and Locust, on the hilltop. It’s early evening in the springtime and the soft light gets ready to hide but graces us with its entry through our windows just a little while longer. The air temperature is pleasantly warm, so our house is not too hot, yet. And the smell of honeysuckle is drifting down from the neighbors shrubs just up the street, wafting a sweet wave of warmth.
I am standing right behind my mother, who is seated in her dusty rose-colored rocking chair. In the distance I hear dogs barking and kids still getting their last moments of playtime outside. There’s an occasional car turning the corner, either headed further up the hill or descending into the city. But the main thing is my mother, who has let me brush her hair while she tells me about, oh I don’t know, a story from her childhood in the house across the street.
Usually I sit in the floor at her feet between her knees and she combs my hair, first undoing the old work, gently combing through and brushing in just a dab of sweet smelling Dixie Peach to keep the edges tame. Then she parts and plaits it all together into a design of three—one to the top left side with two in the back, sometimes with bows at the ends to dress me up with a little style.
But this time I stand behind her and take the brush and play beautician with her hair. It’s thick, and cut into a sort of a bob, I guess, with curls. She lets me run the brush from the roots to the ends in a kid’s interpretation of a style. The clock on the mantel tic-tock-tics, marking the passage of time.
RESPONSE ESSAY: THE TWELVE TRIBES OF HATTIE
The Philadelphia in Ayana Mathis’s Twelve Tribes of Hattie echoes the promise of hope presented in Lorene Cary’s The Price of a Child as well as contrasts the rural south. Hattie Shepherd headed northward to the New Jerusalem, as her Georgia preacher called it, landing in Philadelphia in 1925 at the beginning of the mass exodus of Blacks from the south knows as the Great Migration. This Philadelphia was already filled with people and bustling with commotion, a bigger city than her home back in Georgia. Upon her arrival she marveled at witnessing a civilized exchange between a Black female customer and a white male flower vendor, and she watched Black people walk proudly on the sidewalks with their heads held high, never having to defer to whites as they passed. Although this big city was not the Promise Land after all, the freedom from overtly menacing violence led her to vow to her mother she would never go back.
The harsh northern winter ultimately claimed Hattie’s infant twins in Philadelphia and Jubilee. With no intervention beyond eucalyptus steams, camphor rubs, ipecac sips and a doctors consultation, eventually the fever of pneumonia snuffed out their young lives, but not before Mathis could show the depths of their mother’s love: “She did not know how to comfort them, but she wanted her voice to be the last in their ears, her face the last in their eyes.” She kissed their foreheads. She “called them precious; she called them light and promise and cloud.” Hattie “felt their deaths like a ripping in her body” (Mathis 13). This eloquent description of the twins’ passing touched me almost to the point of tears because it brought to mind for just a moment the memory of my witnessing the deaths of the twin influences on my early life’s development: my mom and dad. Though almost a quarter century apart, I was there for both transitioning’s, and I understand Hattie’s inability to bear her children’s suffering as she heard the “wet gurgling deep in their chests” (Mathis 13).
By 1951 Hattie had several more children and had, in fact, borne a child(Margaret) called “Ruthie” to a man other than her husband August. At their relationships beginning, when she was only 15, she only liked August “because he was a secret from her mama, and because it thrilled her to go out with a country boy she thought beneath her” (Mathis 84). She was “a high yellow” girl who fascinated him, but “after his conquest, the thrill wore off for both of them” (Mathis 89). They both would never be the same after their twins’ deaths. There was anger but no tenderness; stepping out and blame. August felt that if she would just stop hating him for one day, he could garner the strength to do right by her (Mathis 40). Instead, he stayed out partying at night clubs and juke joints with women who “didn’t mean anything” but “just made his life a little more livable from one day to the next” (Mathis 87), for the heat of an argument about electric bill money having been spent at a juke joint, after a cast iron skillet was thrown and dodged, it was revealed that August was not Ruthie’s father. He told Hattie to get out, so she took the baby, met her lover Lawrence Bernard and they set off to Baltimore with Hattie promising to return for the other children. But Lawrence had his flaws, too, primarily gambling. Hattie had hoped he’d be her “safe port” in her stormy life (Mathis 93). He was accustomed to addressing the now as opposed to planning and preparing for a future filled with children. She left Lawrence and returned to August for the children. At chapter’s end August had resigned himself to their having had too many disappointments and too much heartbreak, being beyond forgiveness and love (Mathis 106).
Sad with so many children caught in the crossfire between them. Their domestic discord certainly connects to contemporary times. Verbal shots fired,
dreams dashed, children taken prisoner in what is certainly not “The Promise Land.”
Mathis, Ayana. The Twelve Tribes Of Hattie. New York: Knopf Doubleday
Publishing Group, 2013. Print.
RESPONSE ESSAY: BUCK
MK Asante’s writing presents the reader with a shot of what life is like for many young African American men, aka young bucks, in Philadelphia. In the interview, “BUCK Tells of Wild Childhood in Killadelphia,” he says that his memoir is about education—miseducation, reeducation, self education, street education—and the differences between school and education (Interview, p. 3). He tells of bad experiences in a couple of schools that relied upon regurgitation of rotely memorized facts as indicators of student achievement, where his intellectual potential was neither recognized not stimulated or challenged. It was not until he was expelled from Friends’ Select and enrolled in Crefeld, an alternative high school where eccentricity and difference in (learning) style was taken into account, that his talent was recognized, nurtured and allowed to shine through. His English teacher helped him make the breakthrough discovery that he could write “sentences that flow like water, then…ride the word waves into new
perceptions, new ideas” (Buck, p. 206).
Asante is now a professor of writing and film as well as a hip-hop artist, an award winning talent and published author who has lectured throughout the US and the world. But things could have turned out very differently for this young Philadelphian had he not received help learning to harness the power of his own potential and discovered his own purpose. He found that purpose in writing: first, learning that he could write in his future, spelling out his destiny in sharp strokes (Buck, p. 202), then later telling the story for other people going through similar situations—for “the kid who had never read anything that’s resonated with him,” who has never seen himself acknowledged in anything (Interview p.5). He could have turned out like some of the other Young Bucks he hung around with—maybe dead, or imprisoned, or drugged-out roaming the streets searching for that unattainable something. But an English teacher (shout out!!) challenged him with a blank white page and the words, “Write Something,” which set his creative mind free—to sprint, to dive in, to take his best shot—not in sports , but in writing and consequently, in life.
Asante learned to build a strong foundation for his writing by reading widely. Since his previous schools had done nothing of substance to foster a reading habitat, he was “starved” and “hungry for words, phrases, stories, and knowledge.” He recognized the power to take him on a “journey,” setting him off on a “voyage into a new land” (Buck, p. 226). He practiced writing all forms—poetry, stories, songs, essays, rhymes—to speak fluently to people in whatever language they understood (Buck, p. 231).
Asante then came to understand the power of literacy and the threat it poses on external control systems. Illiteracy is a form of mental slavery. Without owning word power, people’s minds are enshackled. They can never be totally free because they lack the language to formulate the thought process to break free. This holds true even today. When schools fail kids, they most likely grow into “failures” themselves, unless some very specially enlightening forces intervene in time. It is heart-wrenching to imagine the loss which would have occurred had not Asante become empowered to find his voice—and his way. It is heart-breaking to know that this happens even today in Philadelphia. That is why those in a position of knowledge and enlightenment must not turn their backs on the masses but instead, reach out a hand to uplift someone else so that there might be a ripple of positive change.
Asante’ story is so REAL, so PHILLY, a pungent slice of life in the city. When I read his description of the Broad Street Line at Olney—its people and sounds and sights—it was as if I were there, or had at least seen it all before at another stop on another day. In fact, the day I read of the young bucks “bustin” the dozens at each other, ogle-eyeing young women at the stop, getting their hopes up to be verbally shot down rapid fire, where Malo sighted the lovely Ms. Nia and rode to the Spring Garden stop with her just to get a chance at getting her number, this was the same day of “The Brawl,” an actual real life occurrence at Spring Garden Station. A student was repeatedly kicked in the head and one guy fell down into the track area during a massive after school fight reportedly started over a girl. (Art reflects life reflects art, endlessly.)
Philly has its own flavor, its own rhythms and style. It is distinctive, often dangerous, yet it can be dazzling as well. Take for instance, his chapter 43, “The Five Spot.” Captured on Black Lily night. “All types of peeps” are catalogued Whitman-style: “beautiful brown girls with Coke hips and tribal tats…backpackers…braids dreds, weaves, perms, baldies, everybody nappy, happy” (Buck, p. 239). This is the place that birthed Ursula Rucker and Jill Scott and nursed Black Thought and ?uestlove after CAPA. They were all Philly’s own. And MK—aka “Malo”—rocked it back to the beginning, spittin his jawn called BUCK, setting his own story free.
CAROL MCCULLOUGH is a transplanted West Virginian who has lived in Philadelphia for two decades and now resides in Mantua. She received a BA in language arts from Marshall University. She is currently re-writing her life story.