From the Black Arts Movement to Cave Canem: Organizing Founders



>> From the Library of
Congress in Washington DC. >> Rob Casper: For sticking around. I'm Rob Casper, I'm the head of the
Poetry and Literature Center here at the Library account
Congress and I would like to welcome the
participants in our second panel of the afternoon Organizing
Founders. The panelists are Michael Datcher,
Toi Derricotte and Sharan Strange, and our moderator is Joanne Gabbin. Just a reminder, please turn
off all your cell phones and electronic devices and please
note this event is being videotaped for future webcasts at the library. So if you spin participate
in the Q&A session which I promise we will have, you
give us permission to include you in free audio and webcasts. And as you can hear outside,
there is some books for sale and some folks signing those books. We'll do the same for
you after this event. So without further
ado, please join me in welcoming the participants
for this panel. [ Applause ] >> Joanne Gabbin: Thank you
so much for that introduction and thank you also for being here for this panel called
Organizing Founders. It is my pleasure to be here with
old friends and with new friends. I just met Michael Datcher
today and so happy to meet him. I knew him through his work,
but I got an opportunity to meet him in the flesh. And to my wintergreen
women, my beautiful sisters, Toi Derricotte and Sharan Strange. It's just wonderful to be here. I'm Joanne Gabbin and
I'm the director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center. And, you know, I was sitting here I
was listening to Marita [phonetic] and I was thinking I too am
old enough to have been touched by not only Cave Canem, but
also the Black Arts Movement. In fact, the people who
nurtured me nurtured the people who are the architects of
the Black Arts Movement. And I want to spend a moment
to just raise their names. Hoyt Fuller of the black world. Gwendolyn Brooks, Margaret Burroughs who was the founder
of the DuSable Museum. Sterling Brown who was the first
Poet Laureate of the District of Columbia right here
in Washington, DC. And George Kent who was my mentor,
who is one of the finest scholars of the last hundred
years who encouraged me to study Gwendolyn Brooks and
Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown. So these were people who
nurtured the people we now know as Sonja Sanchez and Haki
Madhubuti and Amiri Baraka and Etheridge Knight and
the list goes on and on. But I want to get right into these
introductions so that you can hear from these fabulous people, hear
their poetry, hear their comments and then we want to have enough
time at the end to engage you in a conversation with them. Michael Datcher did his
undergraduate work at UC Berkeley and his graduate work at
UCLA and UC Riverside. He also just completed
his PhD at UC Riverside. He is the author of the critically
acclaimed historical novel Americus and he's also the author
of the bestseller, New York Times bestseller
Raising Fences. Fortunately that book has
film rights on it optioned by actor Will Smith's
Overbrook Productions. He is the coeditor of Tough Love,
the Life and Death of Tupac Shakur. He also has a play by
the name of Silence which was commissioned
by the Getty Museum. He is the cohost of the weekly
public affairs news magazine Beautiful Struggle that is heard
on 90.7 FM KPFK in Los Angeles. His writing is widely
anthologized, including appearances in what makes a man
brown sugar, soul fires, testimony, and another city. He has also curated and/or
participated in the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Museum of
Contemporary Art, the Hammer Museum and other art institutions. We are especially interested in
hearing about the World Stage, a literary organization that sponsored the
Anansi Writers Workshop. So you will hear from him
first, let's welcome him. [ Applause ] >> Michael Datcher: Thank
you all for being here and supporting black
letters and black excellence. I'll begin my comments with
an excerpt from an interview by the founder of the World
Stage, the cofounder Kamau Daaood who was speaking about his
understanding of the role of poets and poetry inside of communities. Daaood is a veteran of
the Watch Writers Workshop that you may have heard of as a
part of the Black Arts Movement. He was also a part of the
Pan-Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, which was led by the great composer
and pianist Mr. Horace Tapscott. He was the lead poet in
that particular organization and this is the quote about
again the role of artists and poets in communities. Quote, I am a devout poet. I believe that right words offered in the right way can be
music holding us together when we can speak the language of
essence, we will be able to commune in the space miles above
dogma in the confines of individual traditions. And we can develop into
evolved human beings capable of radiating profound love,
light and service to others. I believe wholeheartedly that
art in a community is noble work that fosters beauty and
meaning into our lives, that art is vital and necessary. I believe in the sacredness
of breathing. I'll now read a poem developed
in that writing workshop which meets every Wednesday night. This poem is one of my own,
it's called the execution of Michael Brown and
dot dot dot one. Unarmed white men don't catch
gunfire from riffle armed cops, instead their empty palms wave
and pick winning raffle tickets from the policeman's ball. But black hands are magic, wallets
transform to firearms in the blink of a whaling mother's eye, in the enchanting flash
of a service revolver. Black fingertips spin two 45's like
an old-school ballistic DJ flight of hand too exquisite
for the veiled eye, only visible in the cold of silence. But come Sunday pistols are
missing imaginary planks in the eye of the beholder of the bash. If you a speck in a brother's eye
it must be a glint from a handgun, pluck it out, ask questions
later at the inquest. Let his unborn son cross-examine
the city's executioner, let the womb question the
state, the Constitution. Let his unborn son ask will black
magic make me disappear too. Ferguson is [inaudible],
a slave schooner in a recycled Hennessey bottle. Sails are raised hands of surrender,
a loaded badge finds him guilty of harboring illegal dreams. The bottle's waste constricts into
an hourglass meat grinder flips, Michael Brown slides and tumbles
down a tunnel of no return. Time only moves backwards
when historians connect dots like drunk demonologists or when
a sunken face mother whispers, I wish the magic bullet
would've hit me too. Thank you. At the World Stage we try to
follow the spirit and dictates of Mr. Kamau Daaood
who is our founder and also his cofounder
Billy Higgins. If you are jazz fan
you may know the name. Billy Higgins was the house
drummer in many ways for Blue Note, the great jazz label here in New
York or Manhattan [inaudible], around the way in New York
[inaudible] oftentimes. And so in many ways
we really are trying to address the present
historical moment and this also links us back
to the 1960's movement. As we know that in this time of really virulent
anti-blackness we can imagine, if you can imagine animus scale as
Mel White does where there's kind of a hierarchy of aliveness
or animus. At the very bottom there may
be a rock and then some algae and the maybe a cat or a dog or
reverse if you're a dog person on up, you know, to people. And the lower part of the human
animus scale are probably black men and black women. We have the least power to create
and produce change to alter this. And at the very top we
probably find white men. And at the surface —
at the current level of animus black folk
can be killed by someone and the killer can
suffer no consequence because our lives are devalued,
we have so little animus, a little aliveness and respect in this modern present
historical moment that our lives are embodied
subjects don't matter enough to even require the shooter,
the violator to go to prison or to even have a trial oftentimes, which is really very
frustrating and ridiculous. And so we believe that art can
make a change, art can change that. Through art and through literature
in particular that we can use art to elevate the animus of people. When you begin to tell your
own stories about your family, about your mother,
about your mentors, about your children you write
yourself into existence. And the power of writing own
narrative imagine any bookstore, a Barnes & Noble or Borders or
Library of Congress when you and you pour that book from a shelf or all those books
are someone's stories. It could be a nonfiction narrative,
it could be a book of poetry, it could be an imagine narrative. What if you could tell
your own story? What's implied about having so many
books in a library for example, like ours here at the
Library of Congress is that those lives were
worthy of documentation, worthy of a of a memoir,
worthy of a book of poems. What if black folks who
have a lower animus begin to tell their own stories
and that's the power of art we find in Los Angeles. When I got involved in 93 we began
to find creative ways to use art to reach people in our
neighborhood, in our community. So we would — I live in
LA and we live right off of Crenshaw Boulevard, there's a
neighborhood called Leimert Park, it's the center of black art and
political organizing in Los Angeles. It's also, you know, it's a
black working poor neighborhood so we have gangsters, many of
them, we have drug dealers, many of them, we have black drama. So we would go every Friday night
in the beginning especially in 93, we'd go to a corner on 43rd off
Crenshaw with a few poets, a drummer and a milk crate and we would
get up and we would do poetry, we called it guerilla as in G-U-E-R. Guerilla poetry live, we
start playing our drums and kicking our poetry on the
street of Crenshaw Boulevard. And of course invariably we
would have a drug dealer come by, this is in 93 when
crack was ramped in LA. Who are you people they
would kind of sweat us, but we would say we're poets, we're beginning a poetry
workshop, please come. And over a course of months of doing
this they begin to actually come to a writing workshop
featuring poets. So try to imagine in LA gangsters
and folks who are engaging in underground illicit commerce
coming to your poetry workshop. It was for us, it was a time to not
dehumanize and make enemies of those who look like us because
oftentimes in black neighborhoods who are drug dealers or the
gangers are the outsiders for everyone in that neighborhood. So we try to find a way to
bring them inside the community by using art and by using poetry. So we know the power of art
and poetry to transform lives. And my own personal narrative,
I went to undergrad at Berkeley and my mentors were June
Jordan and Barbara Christian, the great scholar and theorist. And I was in a very corporate track
as an undergraduate because I came from a very, very poor family,
I wanted to go make money for my family and I took as a lark, as an elective I took
Jean Jordan's poetry for the people course one semester
the same quarter I Dr. Christian's course on literature. And being in those courses
literally changed my entire view of myself, but also life itself. One day Barbara turned to
me, I would go to her house and she would send me to go buy rum which is probably inappropriate,
but to go buy rum. And we would go to her house
and we'd talk politics late into night almost every
single weekend. And she turned to me one day
and she said, she shook me and she says Michael, you are going
to be somebody with such conviction, with such a force, I mean she shook
me you're going to be somebody. But I actually believed it myself. I began to believe it
myself, so I know the power of someone believing in you. And you can believe in folks who
may be doing in your neighborhoods that are not progressive
or productive, but you can still find
a way to believe in them if there's an access route. And our access route
was art, it was poetry. At the World Stage we offer
a seven days of program. We have drumming, African drumming,
we have poetry, we have jazz, we have a jazz [inaudible] for kids,
we have — it's a crazy program. Go to the worldstage.org
for more information. And use these really inexpensive
five bucks per workshop for like the top people
in the world. Marcellis comes through,
all those cats come through, Pharoah Sanders is
always coming through. The biggest names in jazz
because we have Billy Higgins as our founder come to the
World Stage and kick their work and of course the poets as well. As my time probably is wrapping up
here where's my — how am I doing? We're doing great. And so we believe in the
power and the efficacy of art to actually impact neighborhoods. Too often as we know when
there's a financial crisis, when there's a budget constraint
what gets cut first, the arts? That is a horrible shortsighted way
to approach living in a society. Because when you begin to take art from neighborhoods you take
imagination from kids' lives. Imagination from adults' lives. When you lack imagination you go
to the lowest common denominator which is violence, which is
misogyny, which is homophobia, which is trying to
imagine being a man and a definition that's
this narrow right. It's not an expansiveness when
there is a lack of imagination. So we believe that through art,
through jazz, through literature, through poetry, through
children being exposed to poets in their everyday life. If you can make for
children in particular, if you can make art
attractive or in our vernacular if you can make art cool right. So we thought a lot about how do we
make art cool enough for a gangster to come to our workshop, for the guy
selling literally our corner crack cocaine literally. How do we make it cool enough
so we can get together? So we begin to all wear
black leather jackets. It was a small thing, we're
searching for straws right, we're just — let's all get
leather jackets and we'll go out to the corner and
we'll kick our poetry. I know very simplistic,
very kind of yeah, not really sophisticated,
but it helped right. And so to be able to walk
and talk and be around folks in the neighborhood who are just
open to us as other members living in that neighborhood who happens
to do poetry it allowed poets to have certain type of
respect in the neighborhood where we weren't getting shot, which
happened a bit in our neighborhood or robbed, mugged or
approached to buy cocaine from our fellow neighbors. But I'll say lastly in closing is
that if you can imagine a world as Dr. Edwards, one of my colleagues
has a great quote about her vision for literature and
she says oftentimes that as you relate
literature to imagination. She says that, her
name is Dr. Edwards, she says literature is a repository for conscious stories
and alternative visions. Narrative is a dialogic site
for reimagining possibilities. So her whole goal was to try to find
a way to reimagine the possibility for the drug dealer,
for the gangster, for the rolling 40's
Crip in our neighborhood. And we thought our best route is to
use what we know best which is art and to find a creative way to
make it cool, make it attractive, but most importantly
make it excellence. We found that when you write
in an excellent fashion. [Inaudible] a rigorous workshop, a component people
are going to feel it. So in our workshop we have
an hour workshop first where people bring works in progress in a very intense tough
resolve like environment. Then we have a featured reader,
someone who has a book out or famous poet comes into
town flies in for a half hour and the last hour is an open mic. But in that first part of the workshop all the poets bring
their work first to the workshop and get some very, very tough love. Even my poem I read today was a
workshop in that particular workshop and I got lots of tough
love believe me all right. Even today going to my own workshop
I am nervous climbing that stage because people are
so — I'm not joking. People are not playing and
if you come with a poem that is offensively not
crafted people talk bad about you and your parents. Thanks for listening. [ Applause ] >> Joanne Gabbin: Well Michael,
we're not going to talk bad about you, but we are going to
talk back at you because we want to know more and so
save your questions for the question and answer period. You remind me of something that Gwendolyn Brooks did
back in the late 60's. She had a workshop with
a black peace donation. >> Michael Datcher: That's right. >> Joanne Gabbin: In Chicago. Yes indeed. >> Michael Datcher: That's right. >> Joanne Gabbin: Next speaker. My sister, Sharan Strange, founding
member of the Dark Room Collective and for several years the co-curator of the Dark Room Collective
Reading Series. For many years she was also the
contributing editor of Callaloo, the Journal of African
Diaspora Arts and Letters. Her honors include the Rona
Jaffe Foundation writer's award, the Barnard New Poets Prize, also
her first book Ash was selected by none other than Sonia Sanchez. She has served as Bruce McEver
ever visiting chair in poetry at the Georgia Institute of
Technology and guest faculty at the Center for Contemplative
Mind in Society, as well as writer in residence at Fisk University,
Bennington College, Wheaton College, University of California at Davis,
California Institute of Arts, the University of Tennessee, and now
she is teaching at Spelman College. >> Michael Datcher: Nice. >> Joanne Gabbin: Her poems and
essays have appeared in journals and anthologies, you
will find her everywhere so I will not list all of those. I will say here Sharan Strange. >> Michael Datcher: Nice. [ Applause ] >> Sharan Strange: You
don't need to cut it short. Thank you so much Joanne. I love Joanne Gabbin. Thank you so much to the Library
of Congress, to the Folger. Good to be back in DC I lived
here for many years and I miss it. I miss the DC that I
lived in I should say, you all know what I mean. But anyway, it's so wonderful to
be here and to see old friends and new friends and just to be able
to have this opportunity to talk about the Dark Room Collective
and there's so much to say that I couldn't possibly say it
in 10 minutes, but I have notes so that I can try to
get in as much as I can. We were asked to share a meaningful
poem or quote or prose excerpt as some kind of an epigraph for
our presentation and it was hard for me to choose just one. So I'm going to share a few brief
things without comment and trust that you will see how they relate to my remarks today
about the Dark Room. I wanted to read this
Gwendolyn Brooks poem and I think it might take a little
too long so I won't read it, but I'll just for those of you
who are familiar with the poem that I feel that it is fitting
for what I wanted to share today. And actually if there's
time later maybe I will, it's called A Boy Died in my Alley. But instead I'm going to share Young
Soul by Amiri Baraka and of course, you'll hear the echoes of
Brooks in these opening lines. First feel then feel then read
or read then feel then fall or stand where you already are. Think of yourself and
the other selves. Think of your parents,
your mothers and sisters, your bent slick father then
feel or fall on your knees if nothing else will move you. Then read and look deeply into
all matters come close to you. City boys, countrymen make
some muscle in your head, but use the muscle in your heart. [ Applause ] And then I'll just read an
excerpt of his poem Ka Ba. Our world is full of sound. Our world is more lovely than
anyone's though we suffer and kill each other and
sometimes fail to walk the air. We are beautiful people with
African imaginations full of masks and dances and swelling chance with
African eyes and noses and arms. Though we sprawl in great chains
in a place full of winters when what we want is sun. We have been captured and
we labor to make our getaway into the ancient image,
into a new correspondence with ourselves and our black family. We need magic now. We need the spells to
raise up, return, destroy and create what will
be the sacred word. And finally, this brief
excerpt from Ruminations and Reflections by Sonia Sanchez. The most fundamental truth
to be told in any art form, as far as Blacks are concerned
is that America is killing us. But we continue to live and
love and struggle and win. I still believe that the age for
which we write is the age evolving out of the dregs of the 20th
century into a more human age. Therefore, I recognize that my
writing must serve a dual purpose. It must be a clarion
call to the values of change while it also
speaks to the beauty of a non-exploitative age. [ Applause ] With Black Lives Matter we come back
to the old and persistent framework of black ontology in
the United States. The glaring reminder of
what do boys characterize as the Sisyphus syndrome. It continues to be for
us a question of being and nonbeing quite literally so. Not a matter of whether we exist,
but of how viable is that existence if it is always framed by the
question of whether we ought to and for how long and on
what contingent terms. Black Lives Matter extends
the implicit declaration of our viability found in the
slogan, we shall overcome. But it also worries that basic
presumption when the onus of legitimizing that viability is
thrust onto us Blacks circling back to the tropes of an earlier age
is chastened in our language even as we grapple with the continuing
onslaught of white racist aggression as the boulder comes down
upon our heads once more and we push it up yet again. We've moved from the solidity
authority of black power which said to us Blacks, no matter who else was
listening here it is and it is ours and let us see what it has
wrought and might yet produce. Almost 30 years ago when a
small group of aspiring writers and artists came together in a project called the Dark
Room Collective we were operating under the spell of a devotion to
black lives and voices and art cast by those literary elders and
ancestors who had paved the way with not just their works, but the
consciousness to be boldly in love with blackness and cognizant of
the social and political demands of history and the contemporary
moment on black lives. We meant the Dark Room to be a
space that celebrated the ways in which we could be free of our
constrictions, meaning ourselves and our audiences alike
in such a way that at the very least we can begin
to see each other more clearly and support the ground, a non-exploitative ground
upon which to relate. A yearning toward total life, the
language we put to it borrowing that phrase from Clarence Major. We didn't profess so much of
politics of blackness so much as a politics of community
built on acknowledgment of our literary forebears
and forging bonds of generational dialogue
and mentorship. As the official Dark Room
history goes James Baldwin's death or more specifically, our pilgrimage to his funeral was the
genesis of the Dark Room. But Amiri Baraka really was the
prompt as it was he who urged us to go to Baldwin's funeral. In an essay I wrote many years ago for Mosaic Literary Magazine I
said this about that experience of attending Baldwin's funeral. Our sorrow was suffused
with a kind of energy, a desire to make something positive
out of loss and so we resolved that we wouldn't let another of our
literary elders get away from us. In traditional black culture elders
are always teachers, role models. Through his writings and
activism, his humanism and his vision Baldwin
had given us an example of passionate engagement with life. Like the reels of West
African culture he and other black writers bear witness to our collective struggles
and survival. And like countless other writers
before them they have made vital contributions to American literature and the African-American
artistic tradition, as well as the global
literary tradition. We wanted to affirm the
sustaining value of the commitment and acknowledge our debt to them. My housemate Thomas Sayers
Ellis and I began to make plans to formally connect with and honor
other still living black writers whom we dubbed our
living literary ancestors. We were already involved
in a project of building an extensive library
of writings by black authors of the diaspora, including
first editions and out-of-print publications. We had named it the Dark Room
a Collection of Black Writing because it was housed in a
former photographing darkroom on the third floor of the
old Victorian house we shared with other artists and students. The words were already
emblazoned on the door and we liked the pun it provided
on a room full of black books. The metaphor of a darkroom was also
apt a place where images develop, brought forth in darkness
into light, incubator womb. Only afterwards did we realize the
affinity with the dark tower named after County Collins'
poem The Gathering of Harlem Renaissance Artists
in A'Lelia Walker's salon. So in truth and in many ways
unconsciously too we had tapped into a continuum of historical and contemporary experiential
energy rooted in a consciousness of the beauty of our existence
and the commitment to Harold and take sustenance from it. In terms of the Black Arts
Movement we have an ethos of African centered consciousness
by which to dispel the misconception of self, the psychic homelessness as philosopher Lewis Gordon puts it
concerning the existential condition of Blacks in Western culture. Here I think too of Baraka's
language in referring to the importance of the
image in black consciousness. He refers to having the integrity
of those captured Africans. And also I think of Sonia
Sanchez's discussion of the artist as a creator of social values. So with the Black Arts Movement
we get this will and this sense of responsibility to create and
to create within a space of home. So that became I think the
framework for how we thought about the black literary
tradition in the Dark Room. How the project became meaningful
to us in terms of placing ourselves in relationship to the writers
who had paved the way for us or as my cofounder colleague
Thomas put it, who we owed and how we could extend their reach. In our mission and methods
we were emulating their ethos of fostering community. So for us the Dark Room reading
series had to be homegrown and grassroots, so to speak,
independent of settings such as academic institutions of bookstores even
and initially it was. We held a series in our living
room, we opened the doors and invited the community in and
it was publicized pretty much by word-of-mouth and small flyers
and later go-go style posters, which is an homage to
Thomas's DC background. But we put them up all
around town in barbershops, in libraries, in stores, etcetera. In other words, we wanted
to have it in our home so that people could
feel comfortable, they could feel at home in our home. We acknowledged the
generational bonds of community by pairing elder establish
writers with emerging ones and through this we aim to
highlight the implicit dialogue between the two readers'
works as well. This was important too because the
pairings were meant to acknowledge and promote too we hoped the
inherent mentorship of the elders that we have within
Afrocentric tradition. Often the direct influence
of the elder writer's work on the emerging writer was the basis for pairing the two
in the reading series. Also significantly we
added elements as hallmarks of a specific cultural understanding
of ourselves and our audience. As a matter of cultural
specificity we added a jazz band, the Roxbury Blues Aesthetic. Roxbury along with
parts of Dorchester and Mattapan being the heart
of Boston's black community. Along with incorporating music
into the series we displayed art by local black artists, students,
as well as more established artists. Bringing us all together and
often sharing meals together after the readings solidified
a sense of community, family even that happened
on both sides. And I'm thinking now
specifically of the time that we hosted Ntozake Shange
at the Dark Room and she came in travel weary and went
straight upstairs to take a nap. But before she came to
town she had asked us to find an old friend whom she
wanted to drum at her reading. She gave us one name, his
artist name that he'd been known by way back in the day and my
cofounder colleague Janice Lowe, who is also a musician as well,
took on the task of finding him and it wasn't easy because we didn't
know whom to ask or where to look. But she found him and
that made us so happy because we didn't want
to let Ntozake down. And then several years later when
the collective had starting going on the road to read together
and forge connections in other communities with other
tribes of writers we were invited to read at the Painted Bride in
Philly in Ntozake's neighborhood and she put us all up at her house and there must've been
at least five of us. But she put us all up at her
house and she introduced us to the Painted Bride audience. And it was like this
beautiful moment of community and mentorship coming full circle. It was also wonderful to
be invited as a collective to Furious Flower One in
1994 by Joanne Gabbin. I remember the warmth
and enthusiasm. Yes. [ Applause ] The warmth and enthusiasm of
that watershed event and again, as with Baldwin's funeral, the
heady feeling of being participant or witness to this historic moment. It also felt like being at a huge
black literary family reunion where you reconnected with relatives
you hadn't seen for a long time or met cousins, aunts, uncles
you didn't know you had. The Dark Room Collective was
given a place at the table with our literary elders, mentors
and other peers and it felt like real affirmation of our work of creating literary community
and our voices as poets. The conference was
dedicated to Gwendolyn Brooks, one of my literary
heroes and it turned out to be the last time
I saw her in person and heard her read her
work before she died. One of the rituals we incorporated
into the collective readings on the road was to open our
readings by sharing a poem by a literary ancestor or elder
before we read our own work. I think of it now as a riff
on the pouring of libation. Again that acknowledgment
of who we O-W-E-D and O-D-E if I can make ode a verb. So I'll conclude with this response
to the question of what we see as the value of our endeavors
or at least how I hope that our work will be recognized. The Dark Room affirmed and
perpetuated the vital notion of community among artists of color,
writers, visual artists, musicians, filmmakers, as well as the
enduring power and significance of our cultural traditions. We foster relationships among
artists across differences in career, status, generational
affiliation, geography, poetics. We advocated making room for more
voices, as many voices as possible in the national literary landscape and particularly more room
for marginalized voices. And we especially supported
exploration and celebration of the black literary tradition. Varied and multifaceted as it is and
we catalyzed others to do likewise. Thank you. [ Applause ] >> Joanne Gabbin: You know,
I do remember that in 1994 when they came as babies. Can you imagine and they came
under the title fisted reading and if nothing else they were
channeling the Black Arts Movement by fisted reading and look
what they have become. Sharan Strange, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Kevin Young at Emory
curing a whole archive down there and writing books. And Natasha Trethewey who
was the past Poet Laureate of the United States
and Major Jackson. They were so young that I had
the nerve to title their section of the documentary the [inaudible]. You remember that's
— you were out there? >> Sharan Strange: That
was so meaningful to us. >> Joanne Gabbin: You were out
there yeah and it was amazing to see and it's amazing to see the growth. But now since we are all
as Eugene Redmond said, slipping into elderhood
we put the elder last. This amazing woman. Yes mam. This amazing woman Toi
Derricotte who is the author of the Undertaker's Daughter and four earlier collections
including Captivity, Tender. Tender was the winner of the
1998 Patterson Poetry Prize. Her literary memoir,
the Black Notebooks, received the 1998 Anna Steele
Wolf Book Award for nonfiction and was a New York Times
notable book of the year. Her honors include so, so many, I'm not going to list them all
you have some of them there. But we know her as the cofounder
and mother of Cave Canem. She'll tell you about how
Cave Canem came to be, so I won't tell you that. But I must say I was honored early
on to be on the organizing board of Cave Canem, to see it grow for at least eight years
they kept me on the board. And I could see how
these young people. >> [Inaudible] let you go. >> Joanne Gabbin: Who were
coming into Cave Canem as fellows were leaving
with motivation, were leaving with inspiration
to go on and do great things. And all you have to do is read the
list of books in poetry in America and you will see their name. So let's have a rousing applause
for our elder Toi Derricotte. [ Applause ] >> Toi Derricotte: Oh
what a beautiful city, oh what a beautiful city,
oh what a beautiful city, 12 gates to the city, hallelujah. There's three gates in the
north, which way is the north? There's three gates in the south,
there's three gates in the east and three gates to the west. That makes 12 gates to
the city hallelujah. Come on oh, oh, oh what
a beautiful city, oh, oh, oh what a beautiful city. Oh, oh, oh what a beautiful city
12 gates to the city hallelujah. Gates, these are the gates
and I think that, you know, like Lead Belly in 1912
or whenever that was. For me as I get to be an
elder I'm really an elder, but not until my next book comes out which is called I
didn't — oh wait a minute. I didn't know how to be, I
didn't enjoy being beautiful until I was an old woman. So yeah I'm getting to that. But the older I get the more I
see this process as not a movement and by the way, when I
saw that we're listed with the Black Arts
Movement I was like what, Cave Canem is on the same bill
as the Black Arts Movement like the Harlem Renaissance. It's like what, it's amazing because
certainly we didn't start out, you know, we just wanted
a few people to sit around and help each other
be poets, you know. But I see it more and more as I
get older as a circle and I see us as all 12 gates, you know,
gates to that circle. Maybe we're around Congo
Square, we're in New Orleans where all those slaves on Sunday
could get together and drum and that was where
the music came from. They didn't necessarily
speak the same language, but that communication. And so okay for me it started
really, it's all about love. It's about moving toward what
loves you and what you love, that's what the journey is about
for me and figuring out who that is. And, you know, I didn't grow
up in Harlem or New York, I never read a black poet in
grade school, high school. I was in Detroit, we
were a factory town, we were a middle-class black family. I had a hamburger with Langston
Hughes when I was 15 years old. I didn't know who Langston
Hughes was. Oliver LaGrone who was a sculptor
in Detroit I became his friend, his daughter, Joy LaGrone,
arrived from where — she had run away from home when
she was 14 and came back to Detroit with the Flowers of Evil
under one arm and high heels on and she looked gorgeous. And we became close friends
and Langston used to stay at Oliver's house when
he came in town. And I just remember Joy and I were
like this we've got to get going, we got to get out on
the street, you know, and it was beatnik
time for us, you know. And Oliver made us hamburgers
and Langston and we — I just remember very clearly
that he liked whole-wheat bread because he said that
was really healthy. And, you know, in Detroit we
didn't know from whole-wheat bread at the time, you u know, so I
really paid attention to that. You know, so but that
was mystical for me okay, somebody touches your
life boom, you know, you don't have to know, it happened. And then so on from there, you know,
there was Billie Holiday, you know, I'm 14 years old and I'm
wondering if I'm the only person in my universe, you
know, for those 14 years and then I hear Billie Holiday sing. And I say there's somebody out
there that speaks my language. I'm not alone, I mean she was Billie
Holiday on a record, but I knew, you know, if I just kept
looking there'd be somebody out there like Billie Holiday. And I looked for that all my
life and I found it, you know, especially in Cave Canem
because the circle. Okay so just to tell you this
because we don't have forever, but the lives that have
touched me to get me to Cave Canem was getting — when I submitted my first book
getting an actual letter or note from Dudley Randall that
said, I really like your book, but I'm not publishing anymore,
send it Naomi Long Madgett. I was like what. Then, you know, sending it to Naomi
and Naomi not only accepted my book, but she was in a traffic accident
and in those days you set type, linotype or whatever
by hand and she was in traction setting my book
okay, that's Naomi Long Madgett. It was meeting Gwendolyn Brooks
and writing Gwendolyn Brooks and saying how good
it was to meet her and she wrote me back welcoming me into the poetry community,
Gwendolyn Brooks. Okay, I had a some kind of
an aunt she was the sister of my mother's second husband
and she's very beautiful, Mary Jane Hewitt, and Maya,
Maya's not alive anymore, but she was Maya's best friend. And she came to stay with me and
she said, I'm going to take you to Maya Angelou's for
a cocktail party what. So I got this cocktail party and
I'm like hiding in the corner. There's Baraka there,
there's, you know, Haki, there's Raymond Patterson, there
are all these great writers that I had just, you know,
started to learn about in New York. And I was so shy and I remember
Baraka just like hey sister, you know, and he was so formidable,
you know, and scary to me. You know, because I don't
like to argue so, you know, just like okay please don't
yell at me or something. And he was so kind, truly
compassionate, you know, he was always that way on
a personal intimate level. He was just a compassionate
kind man. So Audrey Lord she was
my mentor, you know, when I was writing the
Black Notebooks and it was such a scary subject to explore,
you know, self-loathing and fear and stuff and relating it to
being a light-skinned black woman. Audrey Lord said, you
write that book girl, you know, do not be afraid. And if you have one person, you
know, you can go forward, you know. Etheridge Knight one time he came to
a reading I was doing at this dive in New York and he walked in with
Galway Kinnell and Robert Bly and I was the next reader. And I was like oh my
God I'm the next reader and there they are
sitting in the front row. And the guy before me Sean Ferrer
[assumed spelling] said I'm here to introduce Toi Derricotte,
but first I'm going to read a few of my poems. And he read for 45 minutes and
they got up and walked out. But I did get to meet Etheridge
later, he used to come to New Jersey and hang out with my
friend, Madeline Bass and was truly loving and kind to me. Nikki in my first reading
I won a little prize and I was the warmup act
for her at the new school. And she read Nikki-Rosa and,
you know, it changed my life. But the best thing I ever did with
Nikki Giovanni is played bidwiz because she's like, she's on that. I swear she's not here, I swear
I beat her at one hand I swear, but don't tell her I said that. And then the Dark Room
Collective invited me, I said why are they inviting me,
you know, and you were so kind to me and you really understood my work
and really asked me questions that made me know these
people really studied it, they took it seriously. You know, I was like and of
course, Joanne and Wintergreen which I told her at the time
had shifted the universe because then there were all
kinds of black people there. It was like whoa there's so many
poets, different kinds of poets, you know, and how are we all going to get along, you know,
and everybody. So okay, so Cave Canem I've
got two minutes to tell you. I never read a black
poet in college. Whenever I would teach I
was always the only one. At a place I was teaching Squaw
Valley I met Cornelius Eady. We started talking about being
the only one, being marginalized and what it felt like and what
it was doing to our writing. When I was at NYU in 1985 I told
Galway Kinnell that I was black. I really hadn't said anything, you
know, in the big literature classes. Why would I tell anybody anyway,
but my counselor had also said when I said why haven't
we read any black people? He said because we
don't go down that low. So it was like these
are the kinds of things that just kind of barrage you. But only, I told Galway I said how
can we get some black people here and he said you think of something
and you come and tell me and I did. I said well I was teaching in
the poets in the school program, so I said can we bring
some high school students in during the summer. He said yeah sure. So we went and spoke to the
head of the English department and of course it didn't go, but
he really defended the program. But I had that in my mind. And then when I met Cornelius and Sarah we were doing
a workshop together and at the workshop I had
a few of my black students and the workshop went south
and the black students and the white students started to
sit in different parts of the room. And I remember walking into
that room and seeing Sarah and Cornelius walk over
to the black students. And I say yeah, these are my guys,
you know that trust was there. And then we started talking about
more things and we had a vacation that next year and when we were in Capri I asked him Cave
Canem was only an idea. If someone hadn't said yes it
would've still been an idea today. So it wasn't like a monument
it was just a tiny thing. When he said yes the ball started
rolling because then immediately where are we going
to have it, you know, where are we going to get the money. Sarah said let's do it
out of our own pockets. I said where can we have it and
then I remembered my friend Father Francis had a monastery
and he said come on up to the monastery, call him Italy. You know, how mystical and
so that's what I want to talk about the mysticality of black
connections and the circle. Thank you. [ Applause ] >> Joanne Gabbin: Since
I'm on camera and I have this opportunity
I want to tell you where the seed was planted. The seed of the idea because
Toi called me two weeks after Furious Flower in 1994 and
she said, Joanne do you understand that these young people
stayed up all night in what was a Howard Johnson's
remember you told me that? Howard Johnson's hotel and they
were reading to one another and they were supporting
one another. >> Toi Derricotte:
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. >> Joanne Gabbin: Yeah, yeah
and I want to document this. >> Toi Derricotte: yeah, yeah. >> Joanne Gabbin: And she
said we have to do something, we have to do something to
give these young people a forum in which they can talk to one
another about their poetry because it's not happening really
in some of our MFA programs. >> Toi Derricotte: Oh yeah. >> Joanne Gabbin: You said that
and we talked for about two hours and then in 1996, Cave
Canem is born. It wouldn't have happened
without Cornelius Eady and Sarah. >> Toi Derricotte: That's right. >> Joanne Gabbin: Micklem. >> Toi Derricotte: That's right. >> Joanne Gabbin: Who were
there in Italy to say yes, we can do this financially. But what was in her head. >> Toi Derricotte:
Working for a long time. >> Joanne Gabbin: Had been working
for a long time and she had sort of said, this is what we need
to do and it came to fruition. And so in 1998 when she asked me
to be on the board I reminded her that yeah, I was there
when it all started. >> Toi Derricotte: Well, you know,
and it's that too I just want to talk about, you know, who do
you go to talk about your ideas. Who helps you with your
vision, you know, and Joanne, if you ever need help
with your vision, what's your phone number Joanne? >> Joanne Gabbin: All right,
now you all get ready. In honor of Sonia Sanchez
who could not be here today because of a family issue we
have to remember that at the end of every presentation she would say, especially after the
powerful presentations that we heard before this one
and these powerful presentations of organization that in
this particular time we have to assume Rachel and Tony
an attitude of resistance and Marilyn's back
there and Marilyn. We have to assume an
attitude of resistance. So to get us ready for the question-and-answer
period I want you to say as Sonia would say, resist. >> Resist. >> Joanne Gabbin: Resist. >> Resist. >> Joanne Gabbin: Resist. >> Resist. >> Joanne Gabbin: Resist
and I want you to remember that Lucille Clifton would say,
every day something has tried to kill me, but has failed. >> Michael Datcher: Right. >> Joanne Gabbin: And
I want you to remember that Gwendolyn Brooks would
say, we are our business, we are our harvest and our bond. Wouldn't she say that? >> Michael Datcher: Indeed. >> Joanne Gabbin: So in these times
we have to remember those things. We have to remember those
strong women who every day through their poetry, through
their lives help us to keep going. Another strong woman said Sharon in
this wonderful poem I'm just going to read a little part of it. In praise of wisdom that was written
in homage to Gwendolyn Brooks and it ends like this, with
untamed hunger for the harvest, unafraid of no astute aboriginal
who penetrates still the chaos and them clamor, who
crafts our mutual estate. What I want to start with is
I want each of you to look at what is this harvest that
you see that we can reap now. Even now when our country seems
to be more embroiled than ever in the chaos of dysfunctional
politics and the clamor of the unjust and hate filled
people what is it that poetry can do in honor of the resistance that
we have been taught by people like Sonia Sanchez and Nikki
Giovanni and Amiri Baraka and Etheridge Knight
and Haki Madhubuti. What is it, what is the harvest? And I know — that was my last
question, but you all did so well in your presentations I don't have
to ask the first few questions. I want to start with that and
then I want you all to get ready. >> Michael Datcher: I'll start. I just want to comment
— echo Toi's comment that it's all about the love. I was thinking about the earlier
panel and then our panel tonight as people were commenting
upon folks we impacted them. Toi talked about Langston Hughes,
Sharon talked about Shange, I talked about Barbara Christian,
Tony talked about [inaudible] and then Miss Nelson talked
about Etheridge Knight. We have all been impacted by people
who loved us enough to make a stand for us, to reach out
to us, to do something and to take some action, you know. Love for me is a verb it's an action
word and the folks in our lives who were mentors, folks who
took their busy time to reach out to those who were
not quite as developed, not quite as well-known
or even talented. But they loved us enough to do
something and that to me seems to be how we create, expand
and harvest that which is out here is us deciding to be that
mentor, that concerned citizen, that concerned neighbor and to
love ourselves enough to love those who look like us and those
who don't, but who are allies to reach a helping hand in the
spirit of love and in fellowship. >> Joanne Gabbin: Beautiful. Yeah Sharon. >> Sharan Strange: I like to talk
to my students about the notion of bearing witness that that's what
art does right, that's the function. And what to bear witness
though sometimes as Brooks again, I'll quote Brooks. That art urges right,
it urges voyages, but also it hurts she
says art hurts. And so you have to be open and
courageous in terms of that process of bearing witness and so
when you said the harvest, I was like the harvest
like you said, it's love but it's the heart right, it's not
losing connection with the heart and even when it's painful. We have to be courageous enough to
remain vulnerable to one another in our barest most elemental
state of being human. >> Michael Datcher: That's right. >> Sharan Strange: Because if we
lose that we've lost everything and I think that's the problem that the oppressor has
yet to recognize right. That they've lost something most
fundamental no matter how powerful they may seem, no matter
how powerful and enduring their systems may seem. And so we bear that responsibility
as artists in giving witness, but we also expose ourselves in the most frightening
ways, you know, to that hurt. But it's that basis of
connection as well because empathy without empathy right,
there is no love. >> Joanne Gabbin: That's right. >> Sharan Strange: And so I think we
have to keep that ever most in mind that the real harvest
is love as you said, but the path to that is empathy. >> Joanne Gabbin: Beautiful,
beautiful. [ Applause ] >> Toi Derricotte: I think
for me I was thinking why now, why are these great poets writing
all these books and why this fury of desire to write and
write poetry and articulate. This certainly wasn't
felt in my growing up. I had a friend, a white friend,
a very close friend we were at a coffee shop and
there was a canister of biscotti clear on the counter. And I ordered my cortado and I was
standing looking at the barista and he was facing me
and I knew this barista, I knew this particular
barista was mean. And people were like scared of him. Have you ever met a barista, it's
like oh you might be scared to ask for a cup of coffee from him, you
know, like really give it to me. It was like you had to
pass a test or something. And the friend, my white male
friend, as we were talking he turned around and opened the
canister of biscotti, pulled out a biscotti
and started eating it. And I was looking at
the face of the barista. His face started to
go through this — I thought he was going to
bust, you know, his brain out. He was like and then I saw him
look at the man, the man's back and then he composed his face. If that had been me he probably, you
know, he would have jumped all over. But he saw this was
a tall white man. So but what I want to
say is that I saw that and I think that's
double consciousness. He was totally not aware,
it could matter less to him. That man didn't matter what he got
his thing and that's how life is, you know, he gets his thing. But what I thought
is that, you know, women for many reasons some people
have to just walk around thinking, you know, can I get this thing
out of this jar or, you know, how am I going to get that
thing out of that jar. And it's really sad, but I
think the thing that's good about it is there's maybe a
complexity that I can go home and sit down and write about and maybe that's why
writing is important to me. Because I can look at things
and add dimensions that and I really think that's one of the reasons why black people
right now are writing these great things they're writing
because they're just looking at things from their ancestors. You know, they're carrying a vision
of a very complex American scene and that's coming out
in the work now. I think my mother had it, it's
nothing new that double vision, but for some reason and I really
don't know why the language and the poetry is there now
in a way it never was before. >> Sharan Strange: I was also just
going to add too in terms of talking about that harvest because I think
when we're talking about love, you know, we're talking about
it in the context of liberation. >> Michael Datcher: That's right. >> Sharan Strange: So I just wanted
to be clear that that's the context that I'm talking about and that
it's understood in that way so that we have more and
more writers producing and black writers producing. And it feels like there's something
even as the again, you know, that metaphor of the Sisyphus
syndrome, even as more and more comes down
upon our heads right, there's at the same time this kind
of opening up, I think this kind of bursting forth of this energy. And, you know, so that
counterforce of the quest, the urge, the thrust for liberation
I think is that harvest. >> Joanne Gabbin: Yeah. >> Sharan Strange: Yeah
and that will free us all. >> Joanne Gabbin: Exactly
and there was that feeling in 1970 at Roosevelt University. I was a new PhD, no I
was a new PhD candidate, but I had just gotten my
Masters and they wanted someone to teach a course called
Revolutionary Black Consciousness and I signed on. And green out of the
University of Chicago. So three months in and I'm teaching
Black Fire edited by Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal and I'm Xeroxing
everything I can get my hands on just like Sonia did five
years before out in California. So I go get lunch at the faculty
cafeteria and so a colleague comes up to me and says, are you that teacher whose teaching
the black literature course and I said yes. He said to me well, you know, we
almost got Gwendolyn Brooks to come to Roosevelt University and
I said whoa what happened, could you not pay her what
she wanted or whatever. And he said no, the
faculty turned her down. This was in 1970, she had
already won the Pulitzer, first African-American to
win the Pulitzer in 1950. And my heart sunk. I said I'm sitting in this
place, I'm speaking to students, 25 or so students and she couldn't. So I made it up in my mind
that every time I transferred to a college or university I would
invite Gwendolyn Brooks to come. So that's why she went to
Chicago State and she read there. When I went to Lincoln University
I brought her there in 1977 and we sat down, she and Dudley
Randall and [inaudible] roots. And in 1986 just one year after
I got to JMU she came again. So you can see how love, the
love that deals with liberation because I knew that was the
political act of slavery. They were keeping her in her place
even though this is a renowned woman and she was also poet
laureate of Illinois. So if any of you want to know
how Furious Flower happened, it was because I decided in 1993 that I would invite her
[inaudible] one more time and she said she wouldn't come in
1993, but she would come in 94. >> Toi Derricotte: Oh I remember. >> Joanne Gabbin: So what happened,
all these people just said okay if Gwendolyn Brooks is
coming I want to be there. So the young people Sharon and Major
and Kevin and the older people, Eugene and Michael Harper. In fact, Michael Harper rest in peace Michael is the one
we've most recently lost. He says Joanne, what
are you trying to do, set off a cannon or something. You're going to have all
these people who don't like each other coming together. I said Michael this is
about the love the poetry, this is about the love of people
being free, this is about the love of people mentoring other people. And what do we when we
got to Furious Flower in 1994 we had a lovefest
around poetry. Yes we did. All right, you ready? Okay, who wants to speak first? Yes mic, someone has a mic. Yes. Okay here, we have one
over here, one over here. Stand up and say your name please. >> Hello, hi I'm Evelyn. My question I think is
mostly for is it Toi? Have you ever considered
having like an online component of Cave Canem like because I know? >> Toi Derricotte: Would
you like to be on our board? >> Yes I would. >> Toi Derricotte:
We're talking about all that because it's a very
different organization than it was 20 years ago
when we were all sitting around Cornelius Eady's
coffee table. We have an office in New York,
we have 400 graduates all over the country, including
people like Rachel Eliza and other Cave Canem fellows
would you stand up today please. >> Joanne Gabbin: Kamilah Aisha
Moon, Anya, oh my goodness. All right, fabulous. >> Toi Derricotte: I mean
people are changing the world and so there you have those
circles again, you know, because you have a person that
goes there, but then they go and they do what you're
doing, you know. And that's the way it works. So yeah, but we need
the money to do that. Got a check? You know, but that's the thing we
are totally reorganizing now I'm just making a joke. I didn't really, well I
did sort of mean that. But we are rethinking what our
goals should be right now and so in some ways we sort of
did our mission, you know, because these guys, you know, it'll
never stop, it'll always be circles and circles and circles
you can't stop it. But so what do we do
now and so thank you. There's the president of our
board right now is Jackie, so we were talking about this
and we'll figure it out right. Thanks so much. Why you would take
a class like that? Hey, would you pay for it? Now the thing about Cave Canem is
you get a scholarship when you go and the reason why we did that
is because we didn't want people to be able to buy their way in. So you only — we get
like 300 applicants a year for like 20 spaces, it's
really hard to get it in. We didn't design it that
way, but it just turns out people really want to be there. But it was always about the work,
I mean but how you can do the work without love and a
place to talk, you know. So it's a great idea. Chalk that up, thank you. >> Joanne Gabbin: Jackie, stand up. The now director of. >> Toi Derricotte: The
president of our board. >> Joanne Gabbin: The president
of the board of Cave Canem and I met Jackie so long ago,
absolutely fabulous poet so yeah. >> Toi Derricotte:
And a fiction writer. >> Joanne Gabbin: Let's
recognize Jackie. [ Applause ] [ Inaudible Comment ] >> Michael Datcher: In
love, it's tough love, there's always tough love
there, it's always in love. [ Inaudible Comment ] Yeah we do our best for sure. Sure, thank you Jackie. >> Joanne Gabbin: Yes
over here please. >> Thanks, thank you everybody
for everything that you hear today and special thanks to my new
colleague, the Smithsonian attorney, Vicki Brown, for telling
me about this program. I had the ticket for this evening, but I didn't know about
this presentation. I'm going to make this quick, it's
going to sound like a commercial, but I'm a historian and
it won't be a lecture. I'm editing a journal and a call
for submissions has this title, the revolution is now being
televised and tweeted. Black protest preaching
and re-presentations from the Black Arts Movement
to Black Lives Matter. And I just felt compelled to do that
because by far my favorite decade of the 20th century is the
1920s, pushing it to the 1930's for the Harlem Renaissance,
but it's young women especially who are forcing me to rethink
how I see myself as an educator. It's especially in this digital age. And I got to tell you I had to
go back and revise the language in this call for submissions
because say her name. >> Joanne Gabbin: Say her name. >> I realized that in this
I hadn't mentioned the name of a single black female
writer last week. I had to fix that because I
didn't want Nikki Giovanni to take me to task this evening. But I'm so glad are you here Rachel? I'm so glad that Rachel included
the video in her presentation because I'm from Cleveland, Ohio. I have a 12-year-old son,
grandson that is, his dad is 31. But he lived in the same
neighborhood as Tamir Rice. And every time I watch
that video online okay because I'm not a big television. Every time I watch that video
it does something to me. But in this digital age we
need that online community and it's young women
who are teaching me that you don't need money for that
you need a twitter account maybe, you need a Facebook page perhaps, maybe you need a blog,
a word press blog. But there are a lot of things that
people can do to build community and I think at the same time
to share the power and the love that the arts happen to
foster in the academy and also in the surrounding community. So I'm just wondering am
I the only one, you know, who felt that conviction? You know that it's young women
especially in this day and age, not just with Black Lives Matter and
what's happening to young black men, but also that we have to
say her name and understand that it still matters to be
black and female in this society. So I'm just wondering if there
are any reaction from the panel. >> Toi Derricotte: Amen. >> Michael Datcher: Amen is right. >> Sharan Strange: Yeah. >> Joanne Gabbin: Well, you know, I
think it's really important to speak to that and I think
that you are on it. You know, if you use the
digital resources that you have, then you bring women and
girls into the dialogue because of course they're
on their phones, they're on their devices
like everyone else. But certainly that particular
theme is really so apropos and I really hope you
have good success with it. I'm just forced to
tell this story just because you brought up Tamir Rice. I cannot help but tell this
story, it's like that albatross around your neck, you know. But I was in Cleveland and I had
the day in Cleveland just a free day and I was on the subway
going back to my hotel and I saw these little boys and
they were playing in the subway. And one was clearly the
leader of the other three and he was 17 I found out. He sort of looked like Malcolm X, he
had his coloring and his read hair. And after and it was
really the two days or three days after Freddie Gray. And I had gone out of Baltimore
which was under curfew and it was on my mind that our black
boys are under attack. And so I just went up to them
and I just started talking about basketball and apparently
they liked me and they said, well which way are you going mam and
I said I think I'm going your way. So they were jostling
the set next to me. And so one sat next to me and
the oldest one sat next to me and he said as we were
riding, Miss did you hear about Tamir Rice and I said yes. He said I'll show you
where he was shot. And as we were going down on
the train he says right up there and then he looked at me. And Michael, I will
never ever forget it and it makes me work harder in
terms of what we do as poets. But he said to me, why did he bring
that toy gun in the playground and he said that was his friend
and he was blaming his friend for having a toy gun
on the playground. And that look Toi of resignation
in his eyes just killed me because our children are growing up
feeling responsible for the hatred and the violence that
they are receiving. So it just makes me
cry to think about him. And so when Gwendolyn Brooks talks about the harvest that's
what she's talking about. We have to reclaim
these young people and reclaim them through the word. We have time for one more question. >> Michael Datcher: I just want to
respond to that just for a second because it was so powerful, wow. As I was saying earlier about this
animus scale and who has children, by a show of hands
who has kids here? If you're a parent you know that kids learn primarily
through what they see. You can talk to your kid until
you turn blue in the face, but a child for the most part is
going to learn by what they see. And because the adults
so often do not feel good about their positioning
on that animus scale that our children see it and
begin to value their own lives in a less way, in a way
that is counterproductive. So a young boy who is talking
about a 12-year-old kid playing with a toy gun who is shot within
two seconds of an officer arriving at a park in a state that's an
open carry state where it's legal to carry a gun in Ohio,
it's an open carry state. You can have a gun shown in
Ohio right, you can carry it in public it's an open
carry state so to say. But there was no asking for
a permit to carry a gun. There was no hey, do you have
a permit for that gun sir. It was I drive up and I
kill you in two seconds. And for another young black
boy to know that story and to have seen the video
I'm sure many, many times, but to blame the victim it shows
you the lack of respect in honoring that person [inaudible]
a young child is seeing. And the adults this goes back
to my reoccurring theme for us, how do we begin to make the
harvest better and more effective. It begins at home in our own
lives doing the internal work of valuing ourselves. However, you do that whether you're
meditating, praying, doing yoga, writing poetry or riding the bus
and talking to young black kids. Do something to work on yourself because when your kids see you
they know that black lives matter. >> Joanne Gabbin: Beautiful. We have time for one more
question or one more, yes one more comment or question. Yes. >> Thank you all of
you this is wonderful. This question first is for Michael,
but it's also for everybody. I have been a witness to the work at
the world stage for many, many years and it's true that in that
room everybody is there, everybody from the
community is there. And because of that spirit of love
and that sign that's on the front of the podium, which I can't
believe you haven't talked about basically it's
like no BS basically. Because of everybody being called to be authentic there's a
spirit of family in the room. >> Michael Datcher: Absolutely. >> And an honesty in the stories
that are being shared and learning and understanding of people you
might not know, might not really sit down and talk with and
that space was created. So for me it's a magical
space because the walls seem to make room for the love. And when I leave I'm always changed. So my question for all of
you is how has this work, how has this founding work
affected not only the communities, but how has it affected your lives? >> Joanne Gabbin: Beautiful. >> Michael Datcher: I'll
let someone else speak first because I spoke last. [ Inaudible Comment ] That's right. >> Joanne Gabbin: How has
it affected your lives? I'll say one thing and
let Toi start after that. In Cave Canem on the very
first night that they're there for the weeklong workshop they all
introduce themselves in a circle and say why they are in this space and what this particular
space means to them. And it's so moving it makes
me choke up, you know, to hear that for the first time in their lives they find a protected
space in which to do their work. So Toi. >> Toi Derricotte: Yeah and
I remember the first year as we were going around a man said, this is the first place I've ever
been able to take off my defenses. >> Michael Datcher: Wow. >> Toi Derricotte: In my life
and it just like, you know, like he was in a bulletproof vest that suddenly dropped
to the floor you know. For me I'm so proud and I'm so in
love and I sort of feel I've done, I know I've done something
really surprising. And something that, you know,
makes me very joyful, very joyful. When I'm with the Cave
Canem people I'm happier than I am in any time in my life. But I still struggle with
depression and self-hate, these are still things
I deal with every day. You know, but in another
way, you know, when we think about these
circles in our lives, you know, sometimes things wouldn't
happen unless you had to fight and figure things out and
invent things you know. And so I don't know why I
think about people like Lucille who suffered so much in her life. You know, but hey look at what
Lucille did with it, you know. So this doesn't all mean your
problems go away, you know, but it means that, you know,
you get love and you get to do your work and, you know,
and that's what it's all about. >> Joanne Gabbin: That's
beautiful, that's beautiful. >> Sharan Strange: I would just say that the experience
makes you remember that you are part of
something larger. That the work is about something
larger, something greater, you know, working within collectivity
you have to as Baraka says, think of yourself and
the other selves. And when Baraka came to Spelman
in 2008 he asked just a couple of questions of the students. He asked them to think
about their history and what is their relationship
to that history and then what is their
relationship to their community and what ultimately do
you intend to become. And so I think doing this kind of work collectively raises
those questions, you know, raises the question of
the larger, the greater. And so it makes me crave community and as a teacher it also challenges
me to have my students think in those terms too because
the vital, the vital work, the vital human work
is collective work. It's self-work, but
it's also collective, ultimately it's for the collective. So that work I think keeps me
centered in that kind of ethos and having that as a kind of
standard to know when I have failed and to know that I need to keep
challenging myself and keep working. >> Joanne Gabbin: I want
you to have the last word. >> Michael Datcher:
All right, thanks. Thank you Ruth for that question. And you're right being around
the world stage is a very rewarding experience. And for me I just fall
in love with black people and the black experience and I
need that because so much of life as we know if you're an
African-American walking around in black skin
is very complicated. If I walk into a room, I'm
a professor of English, I have primarily as you can
imagine white colleagues. When I walk into a room the
room changes every time. I could tell you so many disturbing
stories, it's so damaging, it's so damaging that you have to, I have to work really
hard to love myself. And when I see beauty in black
environments like the World Stage, although it could be a very tough
space to be honest when it's about the craft because
people are very, very serious about
their craft there. Although it can be very tough it's
such a beautiful space to see people from across the spectrum
of the black community. I mean literally gangsters,
prostitutes, professors, everyday people having high level
discourse about life and beauty and humanity and politics. It's very invigorating because
it says that you are alive. Folks who are saying to us
that you're less a human or that you somehow
are less valuable. Being there I see that it's a
lie, we are beautiful and I need to be reminded that
we are beautiful. >> Joanne Gabbin: And you
have been just an absolutely beautiful audience. I challenge you to go out and
organize in your own community. >> Michael Datcher: That's right. >> Joanne Gabbin: Organize
your own literary groups. >> Michael Datcher: That's right. >> Joanne Gabbin: Organize book
clubs, organize writing workshops, organize political meetings,
organize and that's the message that Baraka always gave, organize. You can be the architect
of your own movement. >> Michael Datcher: That's right. >> Joanne Gabbin: Your own group that will do something
positive in your community. I'm talking about everybody and
because really that's the legacy that we have inherited as children
of the Black Arts Movement. So thank you for being here. >> Michael Datcher: Thank you. >> Joanne Gabbin: I
enjoyed it so much. Give our panelists a rousing
applause, rousing applause. >> This has been a presentation
of the Library of Congress. Visit us at LOC.gov.

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