Let me begin with a confession: I love memorials. I’d never miss a memorial service, whether the person being celebrated, honored, and remembered is known to me or is a stranger. I just like being in the audience, bearing witness to the outpourings of unforgotten love, heroic deeds and all the extraordinary larger than life of the ordinary being. Dead. but alive.
I am one of those people who will start reading a newspaper from the obituary page. Oh, doesn’t it move you the good things people have to say about the departed? I find pure, honest and genuine gratitude expressed. But what I’ve come to treasure more is the celebration of a life while it’s still a life as we know it.
A week ago Arthur Flowers invited me to Amiri Baraka‘s let loose on the world, celebrating 75 years at the Schomberg. Before I could ask what a Schomburg was I jumped in the car anyway and off we went. If you’ve never seen Arthur passionately describing griots, writings and revolutionaries all in one pack, I’ll need to dedicate several pages to that but now a few details. Our minds flew to the Caribbean and breakfasted on Texaco—Patrick Chamoiseau’s masterpiece, a knitted history of Martinique’s 200 years, Edwidge Danticat, Aime Cesaire, and all the other Caribbean writers that matter. I learnt when I was five years old that when a master griot catches the rhythm, a young griot infuses the spirit by listening. How can I describe this kind of baptism? It is rapt, invigorating, and when it’s over, you just know you’ve had a priceless knowledge exchange. Were it affordable, you could part with a minimum $20,000 for that kind of education. Bless me, I had it for the five hours it took to arrive at the Schomburg. Evan in the back seat had it too, though perhaps at a different level of osmosis.
We left the island literature and talked African literature elsewhere. Arthur literally took off his coat, folded his sleeves and plunged into the world of Black writing, devouring hungrily this and that writer, I prayed to God my memory would retain it all.
It was serious business getting in the Schomburg. The multitude, the drums, the flutes, the dancers, the blues, the jazz, the poetry, the plays, the dance! It was all there, i remember saying to myself either this was it, the great re-awakening or i hadn’t seen nuthin yet.
I hadn’t expected to see folks I knew but there they were, a handful of them, but Arthur knew the whole house. Khadija Sesay, of SABLE LitMag, Malaika Adero, of Atria books, Jacqueline Johnson, who I first saw at the Pan Africa Literary Forum in Ghana, who else? I am still growing. I did the best thing I could do: watched. Arthur was introducing us one minute and hugging folks the next. He knew all of them, I swear to God. And was he jolly? He was coming loose with excitement, recognition, love and cheeriness. He was like butter melting in the sun. Smiles, smiles everywhere, talk, talk, then hugs. He said to one gentleman, “I think we are facebook friends.” Arms open they hugged, closing whatever distance they had already bridged via facebook. Rewind and fast forward, 20, 40, 60, 75 years were brought together in a strand. To say I was happy to witness all this is an understatement. One good looking old woman hugged me tightly and said to me and Evan, “We are proud of you, very proud of you!” Just like that. Then she caught the puzzled look on my face and added, when I was your age I never had anyone to tell me such, to say such, but I know it is important and allow me to say it to you, “We are proud of you.” I hugged her. What else could I do? I hugged and thanked her. When the music started and the tributes to Amiri and Amina began, I felt I had become part of a renaissance I hadn’t begun with but here I was, I could watch it grow and throw in my beads. That’s the beauty of being a writer in the collective sense. You have a chance to claim being a part of, to plunge in, to witness, to partake. Unashamedly. That’s what I did.
Then came the time when Amiri was lifted up in air and bounced like a baby, ‘bounce the boy, bounce the boy, bounce the boy…’ and the drums and voices rolled, Happy Birthday, Happy birthday, rhythms and all! We could see Amiri getting really uncomfy up there and perhaps whispering, ‘folks, put me down,’ but no, they kept him up good time till we had clicked and captured it all on our cameras.
Amiri gave a brief speech to say, Thank You, and to say the future had started. The struggle wasn’t over, but the promise of its continuity and win were now a sure path. I was pleased to hear that. Sometimes old folks will say ‘Things are over,’ which isn’t true. I was glad he blessed the future and said we were going on. At 75 he was still hitting the gong. I hoped nobody would blow us this time, or if an attempt was made, we would snip it in the bud. Prevent the fatal. We are never far away from a revolution…
And there was this dear old man whose name I didn’t catch. He recited a poem for Amiri and said he had been working on the poem for fifteen years (to that I bowed) and now he was gray haired and all, but still had his shining teeth and long silvery cutey beard. He read the poem which indeed showed the maturity of many years like a mellowed oaky wine. It was a comfort. I garnered the sense that so long as one is an artist, it doesn’t really matter how many years it takes to finish a project. Just keep on refining and refining and the audience will have no doubts! It turns out a polished performance. I loved that old man who had worked on his poem for fifteen years. He told us that the poem had even grown long it was now 150 pages but he read only a portion of it.
We all came loose with tingling and shaking when the didgeridoos started doing their ‘magic’. Boy, it was something! The dead arose, like Sekou Sundiata, the revolutionaries… It took the didgeridoos to do that. Never underestimate the spiritual power when it meets intellectual and artistic purpose in a full house of social gathering.
I will skip the part about the food, the wine, the champagne and continued celebrations. I will instead get back on the road, back to Syracuse where I spent the next day fighting not to be depressed. This sometimes happens when I’ve been exposed to ‘high explosives,’ what Arthur calls First Strings, including him, though he will not accept he is one of the First Strings, to me he will always be First String. So back I was feeling mighty low, and trying to find a cure for my lowness by tracing cause. I do that a lot. Am my own psychologist. That’s when I discovered I had hit highest and there’s a mental price for that. Do I have regrets? Noooo! I would go back again to be among the elders, to watch first, second and third generations of griots, young, old, intemediaries, and pay back with a headache and a cup of depression for one day. I would do it again to celebrate Amiri’s 75 and watch him dance away the blues. The bad dreams. And welcome the future.