Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Feelings and Passages

"When I am asked who I am, I say, I am an African who was born in America. Both answers connect me specifically with my past and present ... therefore I bring to my art a quality which is rooted in the culture of Africa ... and expanded by the experience of being in America. I use the vehicle of 'fine art' and 'illustration' as a viable expression of form, yet striving always to do this from an African perspective, an African world view, and above all to tell the African story ... this is my content. The struggle to create artwork as well as to live creatively under any conditions and survive (like my ancestors), embodies my particular heritage in America."
--Tom Feelings

I woke up with Tom Feelings on my mind today.

Don't know exactly why. I was so tired yesterday that I couldn't tell you what my last thought was before I fell asleep. My body was tired but my spirit was lifted after a beautiful day teaching The Poem as Praisesong with some great young people and one elder at the Walt Whitman library in Brooklyn. If you don't know, the Walt Whitman library is a lovely old space, kinda gothic looking, right across the street from a lovely church, also kinda gothic looking, and both are completely surrounded by the Projects, 'the Walt Whitman Residency' that sits on a dead end street just a stone's throw away from Ft. Greene Park. We gathered in the basement of the library and wrote poems about the folk we loved and some we'd lost, read Michael Harper's praisesong to Sherley Anne Williams, among other works, sang songs, and wrote more poems. We were going to do a walk-about but I didn't want to lose the momentum. It had started off a lovely day, and I didn't want to lose nobody out in the streets! Imagine me chasing after folk, poems in hand. Instead, we let the words come, inside, and I left with a handful of poems so fresh they were wet and the promise that I'd type them up for everyone and return to work with them again, all willing.

Imagine how good it feels to see somebody 'cited 'bout Poetry!
Excited about putting their words on the page

and sharing them with somebody they love!

I left St. Edwards Street with all their words inside me, and their voices, too, them beautiful voices. Two sisters and their grandmama sang Gospels for us so sweetly, felt like I was in 'chuch!'. It's been a while and I felt truly blessed indeed.

And in this city where everybody is a nomad, you're bound to meet a kindred spirit along the way. Turns out, before I could get across the street good, I ran into a brotha who does promotions for the National Black Arts Theatre, and so I'm going to see David Wright's SHANGO, and I couldn't be happier, since I'd just picked up a flyer for the play at the National Black Writers Conference and was trying to figure out how I could fit this performance in with everything else I got to do. The Taxman Calleth. Talking with brothaman about the theatre reminded me of when I once co-taught a Center for Black Literature high school program on John O. Killens' The Cotillion with a wonderfully gifted actress and dedicated teacher, Yaa Asantewa.

Asantewa set the stage on fire, Asantewa inspired teens with skill!

No doubt she blew up the stage in Judy Anne Mason's Storm Stories production at the Billie Holiday Theatre, and she is a gifted educator.

And ain't nothin' better than working with a teacher who actually *likes* to teach! And ain't nothin' better than talkin' with somebody who don't mind tellin' it like it is, but still got enough hope to try the make the world what it could be.

Sometimes we'd leave the classroom with tears in our eyes, most days we were full of laughter and wonder, just really proud of how hard our young writers worked, despite the limited resources. It was there, in that classroom, that I first encountered folk who told me they had never owned a book, never been allowed to take one home and claim it as their own. Couldn't believe it. And folk want to blame the teachers, when they're the foot soldiers makin' do every day, spending their own money to bring in resources - dictionaries, disks, pencils, paper - tolerating brokedown this and brokedown that, and just doin' the best they can in a system set up to fail. Well somebody say Amen, 'cuz I'm spent like the rent. End of mini-rant.

So, I was knocked out last night, maybe a few random poem lines and storybits floating through my mind, and those girls sangin', when I wake up thinking about Tom's Middle Passage drawings. Now, it's been a little time since his Passing, and since they renamed a street after him in Brooklyn, since I first saw his work beautifully exhibited at the Schomburg when I first moved to New York ten years ago. The last time I spoke with Mr. Feelings, by phone, he was so generous, amazingly so, with his time and his knowledge, that I remember getting off the phone and thinking, that's the kind of elder I'd like to be one day. I'm noting this here because too often we take each other for granted. Too often we forget that in reality, don't nobody got to tell you Didley, don't nobody got to give you a single thing.

Marie had suggested I call Tom, to talk about some of his early work as an illustrator. I was doing some Dark Matter research, researching possible black writers and illustrators who may have worked on science fiction pulp magazines during the genre's Golden Era. Tom illustrated a comic strip for an independent black newspaper, Tommy Traveler in the World of Black History, in which a little African American boy would fall asleep while reading a historic work, then dream of living in those times. The conversation was rich and extensive. He shared insights about his great masterpiece, The Middle Passage, a work I was excited to learn was the first in what he hoped would be a trilogy - an impressive exploration of transatlantic slavery. During our conversation, he expressed concern about how challenging it was to do the work he needed to do and maintain his focus and commitment while earning his living and mentoring many others. He was a generous and dedicated artist who gave much to those around him, and he feared that his advancing age might prevent him from seeing his dream realized. He passed on before completing his life project, but what he has left us is truly a legacy. Like Octavia E. Butler, he certainly left an amazingly broad body of excellent work that will instruct and engage folk generations to come. His collaborations with Muriel Feelings, Moja Means One and Jambo Means Hello were my first introductions to him as a child, and I have had the pleasure of sharing them with my own family. Before he passed away in August 2003, he collaborated with poet Kwame Dawes on a beautiful children's book, I Saw Your Face. I feel truly blessed to have had an opportunity to talk with him and to listen to a little of his story.

I woke up with Tom Feelings on my mind today, and I think it was an important reminder.
We are not promised tomorrow, so we must continue to work hard on getting our vision out in the world today. Mr. Feelings did it. Ms. Butler did it. Now what will we do?

aluta continua

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