click here for pt 1
I have a flair for dramatics, I discovered long ago. And the drama of telling my boss what I really thought of her, followed by a march into HR and subsequently into unemployment-dom, well, it was the kinda occasion to flex dramatic muscle that’s hard to pass up.
The drama carried on for a couple of weeks afterwards. I wanted…hell, I needed to hear ringing endorsements of my tirade against tyranny in the workplace. So I milked my friends dry, riffin’to anyone who’d listen about them “motherfucking racist fucks at L&T!” And how I’d told them motherfuckers what they could do with their ‘oppo-fuckin-tunity’! “Them crackers ain’t gonna never forget a nigger like me, you can beleeee dat!”
Yeah, I rode that wave of bullshit until the day I reached in my pocket and came up with lent.
Then, reality and regret set in. I could have handled that differently, I scolded myself… Cheryl wasn’t so bad…for a Cracker. At least she was trying not to be a racist piece of shit…I could’ve given her some credit and cut her some slack! But, nooooo, I had to mount my self-righteous high horse and condemn the woman. Great. Now I gotta hit up Ma Duke for carfare and food money…
I entertained these kinds of thoughts as I dusted off and updated my résumé, and prepared myself for another fun-filled round of job interviews.
Meanwhile, there was still school to deal with.
The student body at LIU was mostly black, but the Professors were almost entirely white. A fact I didn’t find especially troubling before the events at L&T had taken place. But, after, it began to rub me the wrong way.
I became something of a Latter-day militant on campus, images of Public Enemy dancing in my head. Imagine howBobby Seale would look after he’d had a makeover done to him by some late 80’s Ghetto Fab-ologist. Certainly he would’ve been advised to trim off the sides of that Afro and flatten the top, right? And undoubtedly he would’ve traded in those heavy-ass combat boots for a pair of Gucci sneakers or some Timberlands, wouldn’t you think? And, let’s face it, black leather jackets may have said ‘militant’ in the 70’s but in the 80’s they were more retro than militant, so he wouldn’t have been able to resist a denim Ralph Lauren Polo jacket, jeans to match, and a Public Enemy T-shirt, I bet. And no accessories say militant like a Flavor-Flav Clock necklace and a 14k two-finger ring with diamonds, Right?
Oh, wait! You don’t have to imagine…there I am (see above-with my Sweetheart of the time who gets the mosaic cuz I think she’s a cop now 🙂 )
Looking back, I guess I must’ve looked pretty…nah, fuck that, I was cool! I had attitude, and I had style.
What I didn’t have was love for higher education as it was presented to me by a bunch of tenured white folks. Naturally my attitude affected my grades. I went from the Dean’s list to damn near non-matriculating over the course of a year.
And, I believe it would have continued that way until I’d totally given up the ghost if I hadn’t met a woman.
And, yep, you guessed right: it was another white woman.
Her name was Barbara Henning.
She was a professor at LIU. Taught English Literature and Creative Writing. I’d had a couple of English courses before I’d taken hers. Can’t remember the courses or the teachers. The courses had been mandatory so I’d taken them. But, in my Junior year I’d taken hers. And, from the start, I knew that it would be different. I’d sit in her class and listen to her hold forth on the great European poets of the past like Wordsworth, Coleridge, and the likes, and find myself oddly intrigued.
I think it was Samuel Coleridge who first caught my attention. One of his more famous poems, in particular, called, “Kubla Khan,” rocked my world a little. I think what I fancied about him was he was an 18th Century Junkie (Opium addict), and while high dreamt a poem and upon waking wrote it down. And, now, centuries later, here we were studying it. There was something about that scenario and the poem that spoke to me in a very personal way.
Especially this part:
“…the sacred river ran, then reached the caverns measureless to man,” the man said.
I remembered at that time, in Barbara’s class, that when I was a kid I used to write poetry. I used to give my little poems to girls that I liked. Sometimes they’d ridicule me into Opium-free reclusion… In fact, that was often the case, and so I’d given up my poetry penchant for my ego’s sake. But, Coleridge’s Kubla Khan reminded me of the anticipatory thrill I felt putting pen to page and creating. Also of the exhilaration I’d feel, on the rare occasion, when some girl would read the poem I’d given her, come over to me afterwards and say, “thank you, Loco. It’s beautiful.”
If I remember correctly, one of my first assignments was to write an essay about this, and this I did, with gusto…only, I’d done it the night before it was due. I sat down and wrote out all my romantic ideas about drug-influenced creativity and so on.
When Barbara returned our papers to us, I was prepared for a “C” or worst. But, I’d received an “A.”
“You are a very talented writer,” she told me. “You should think seriously about writing as a career.”
Yep, I was still predisposed not to trust white people, still flirting with racism. Here she was praising a work I’d barely finished, un-typed, handwritten in my chicken-scratch cursive, as “talented.” I glanced around at my mostly black classmate’s papers to see what was the going grade. I saw a lot of Bs and Cs.
But, still, I didn’t trust it.
This went on for the entire semester. By semester’s end Barbara called me to her office and gave me the “talk”.
“Loco,” she said. “Your writing is terrific and I think you ought to consider becoming an English Major.”
“I’m giving you an “A” for the course, ” she added. Now she had my undivided attention! It was the first “A” I’d received since the Dean’s list days of my freshmen year.
“But, I’m a Media Arts Major. I don’t want to change…”
“You could take on a double major,” she said. And explained to me what that entailed. To summarize, it meant I’d have to take a whole lot of English courses, on top of my Media Arts course load, between then and graduation. Not to mention all the money. That Army loot was loooooong gone. I was practically living off of student loans by then.
“I don’t know, Barbara…I’ll think about it,” I said, which is the softest “no” I know.
“Next semester, Lewis Warsh is teaching a Creative Writing course. Do me a favor, and take it!”
Lewis Warsh’s course changed everything. And, yep, it was another white man.
Like most Creative Writing courses, he’d give us a theme and we’d write about it. Every week a new theme, and every week, for almost the entire semester, I was the star! And not only by his reckoning. All my classmates, which I had to read before, and who had copies of my work on their desks before them, agreed.
My god! I have a talent! I remember thinking.
It was an extraordinary experience for me. All my life, to that point, though I had intelligence, I could never do anything above average. I couldn’t play sports all that well, I couldn’t play any instruments all that well. Couldn’t sing, couldn’t dance… I couldn’t even distinguish myself rolling a blunt – God knows I practiced!
(Actually, I could play Chinese handball pretty well. But that’s about it.)
And, beyond that, during my teens, I never had anyone even attempt to encourage me to pursue anything beyond the basic requirements…not scholastically anyway. My teachers had never even bothered to lie to me to boost my confidence.
So, to find myself, in University, catching kudos from my peers, and receiving praise and encouragement from professionals? It was a phenomenal feeling! A wave of euphoria unlike drugs, sex, or anything else had ever given me.
So, yeah, you better believe, after that first semester of Creative Writing I took on English as my second major, and got “A”s and “B+”s in every class whether it was writing, literature, or poetry…didn’t matter. I was all over it! Even my media arts grades paled in comparison.
In my final year at LIU, I was taking an Independent Studies course with Barbara. I’d meet her sometimes at her apartment in Park Slope and we’d discuss a writing assignment she’d given me. I loved these meetings for she’d tell me what my strengths and weaknesses were as a writer, based on my work. And being in a professor’s home made me feel as if she’d taken a very personal interest in my prosperity.
I was working full time and going to school full time so I was always pretty tired and pressed for time. So, for one assignment she’d given me, I used an essay I had already written some time ago…not for her, but something I’d written just for myself. I had written it in 3rd person, but the assignment had called for 1st person. Thinking I was clever, I went and changed the piece I’d written from 3rd person to 1st and handed it in to her. Of course she realized what I’d done almost immediately, but she was such a woman that she’d let it go and used the work to teach me about the powerful emphasis and personal nature of the 1st person use of pronouns like “I” “We” “and “Us”. I’d missed a lot of the “We”s and “Us”s in the essay, leaving them in their original “they” and “them” and this was her way of letting me know that not only was on to me but that she had moved on to more consequential matters…
Or was that Lewis who taught me about that?
I confuse the two of them sometimes, for in my mind Barbara and Lewis are like this tag-team of serendipity I’ve amalgamated into this one awesome entity, this force for creativity, this perpetual muse that serves as both engine and caboose for everything I write. In my soul, as I endeavour to create through writing, I am always honoring their effort. And when I feel my confidence waining, as I so often do, I can hear Lewis saying “hmmmm” and “uhhhh” in that way he does, and his incisive questioning as to the “why” of my work in order to allow me to find for myself its strengths or weaknesses. And I can see his red ink on my papers, where he’d recommend I read writers like Jim Thompson, Hammett, Ellroy, and Chandler because he sensed that these writers would stir something in me, and help me to see the possibilities and find my own voice. And, damn, was he on the money! And I can feel Barbara’s deep empathy and insightful critique of the mind that chooses print as its medium for expression, and the experience that makes the expression a necessity.
Sure, they were simply professors doing what professors do, and if they should come across a student whom they believe has potential it’s essentially their duty to do what they can to set that student on the path.
But this they did admirably.
I’ve drifted off of the path more times than I’d like to count, but they were the first to actually tell me that, like Baldwin, Hurston, Hughes, Himes, Morrison and many of the writers I’d read, adored and admired, I too could do something magnificent with the written word if I so choose and apply myself accordingly. They showed me the path.
And, unbeknownst to them, they did so much more than that.
Those mental postcards I keep in a back-pocket in my mind, of menacing white faces smiling as black bodies burned, charred corpses in frozen poses of agony, or as castrated cadavers swung from limbs of trees painted with their blood and feces…you know the ones…well, my two enlightners provided me with some other postcards to put in my mental back-pocket- just as powerful, images just as indelible. Even more so, because the people in these photos are notstrangers in some dark forest clearing in American disremembrance, road kill on the trail to a more perfect union. The pictures are of three people. All three are smiling. All three are writers, endowed with the capacity to create postcards that inspire change and growth, and challenge the dark facets of human nature displayed in those other postcards. And all three are, undeniably, human beings: Barbara, Lewis and Loco.
Simply put, I give Barbara & Lewis full credit as my sponsors, so to speak, for giving me the weapons to banish the burgeoning hate from my heart. They actually made it a feat requiring a conspicuous leap of logic and loss of rational thought to hate, disparage or even class off white people simply because they were white. I loathe to even entertain the notion of doing so (though I have been guilty of it since…relapses here and there). I willfully refrain, and am intolerant of people who do not make the same effort in my presence, avoiding these people whenever possible.
How do you thank people for such a gift? Thank you just doesn’t cut it, does it?
Well, I thank them by writing. Writing my ass off.
And by trying to live my life according to the lesson they taught me simply by being themselves…free of the divisive yoke of racism. And, when I feel myself growing vulnerable to these kinds of thoughts, condoning hate-speak and cordoning off the language of tolerance and equality, I dig in and I address it.
Thus, this series.
I actually believed that I had it licked, that I had totally eliminated my capacity to harbor racist thoughts about any group, for I hadn’t done so for quite some time. I was on the wagon, you see.
Then, I came to Japan, and spent some time around these motherfuckers.
…to be continued