memoirs and personal essays

by Wesleyan University, instructor: Greg Pardlo

The sun seemed to pour out of the sky unimpeded by every building shorter than the august obelisk, The Washington Monument, to elope from the stars with the red and brown pigments in my skin. It was 1991 and it was my first year at Howard University. Naughty by Nature, X hats and tee shirts ribald in their explanation, “Its a black thing you wouldn’t understand” were de riguer on Georgia Ave. I didn’t want to attend an HBCU, I wanted to go to my first pick where I was accepted, NYU. Mom drove her caramel colored Astro Van from Stone Mountain of Georgia to Washington Square park running rough shod over my hopes to go to school in the Big Apple. All I left with after the acceptance interview was a tee shirt with the logo for NYU in Prince purple on its front. But on this day as I roamed agog within a manumitted haze that easily answered the question Nina Simone proposes in song about what feel like to really be free. In that moment it felt as though the double consciousness that had thrown me just enough off balance in life to trip but not fall dilated into a singularity. I was no longer trying to measure my insecurities or the propriety of my long brown body against what I think others are seeing. My voice was mine and it was black, My carriage was mine own gait and it was black too. There was no single arbiter of set standards that invariably were bequest of stereotype’s about blackness hot and locked in a monolithic identity. I had become black simply because gosh darn I was black, I had become part of the living waters that dispersed the diaspora coming ashore not enslaved by the eyes and the limits of other skin folk that ain’t kin folk but as something lyrical and free as a song of Solomon ” I am black but beautiful…” and gay. I was scripture and therefore infallibly black. I was something I had never been. I felt as though i shined differently in the sun. That part of my prism had been a dark crystal that had never broke and scattered light in different parts. And with this new exposure to radiated wind and sky I began to believe something teachers had never told me to believe in Stone Mountain of Georgia. The teaching of the Lost Cause as genuine history slipped its manacle grasp of off my possibility. I began to believe in myself and my ability. I took risk in writing and class choices. But things really became unrecognizable resonating with me anew in my Freshman English class. My classmates were cast from a Different World. The Dwayne Wayne character had lighter skin but the same glasses, dashiki and kufi. The Whitley Gilbert character wore the same Liz Claibourne quasi executive elitist pant and short suits to class but had dark almond has her skin tone, The professor was a shorter than I white man that had milk toned skin that seemed to be bedazzled with moles that looked like chocolate cookie crisp cereal. He seemed like an affected dandy. He had just returned from teaching from The Congo with his wife. I was teaching myself KiSwahili out of a smallish book that had somehow absconded from Founders Library burgling my person. He spoke Kiswahili so I spoke what I knew back to him and he seemed impressed. Along into the seasons he decided to keep me and Whitley Gilbert after class. I was not worried because I was shining. He sat us down and told us that we had complimentary writing skills and talents. I was creativity and she was form and structure. I have always loathed what I thought was enslavement of words to dominant western forms and rules for scribing. At that moment It was revealed to me that what I wanted to do and seemed to do since age 7 was what I was meant to do. Alice Lovelace encouraged me in an elementary school gifted writing class. But that lauding was eclipsed when she borrowed my Robots of Dawn by Asimov. She borrowed a book from a 6th grader, dropping it in the bath while reading and then audaciously brought it back just as pruned as the advancing wrinkles on her hands. To this day I cant believe she did that. And her face, form and gender were the same as my Mom so her encouragement was as inspiring as crackling cornbread with out crackling is crunchy. I had never been told explicitly by a teacher that looked like Dr.Schreck that there was something beautifully ungrammatical to my style. As days went by and my pretentiousness seemed to bloat like something a week old in death under the sun class crept upon me holding a short story, Sonny’s Blues by a revered ancestor, Mr.James Baldwin. It was but just for a moment that my blood tumbled in somersault reversing flow then jumping over my heart like the cow jumped over the moon to end in my head swirling and swoon. I looked hauntedly through the short story pages stealing subjects, noun, adjectives, verbs, articles and prepositions for the stringing of sentences as pearls at most possibly Panama City seashell chokers in its least. The joy of ignorance and hypothetical word buggery emboldened the reach of my interpretive grasp fjording me to comfort in the hard parochial school wooden chairs. And upon reflection of this inflection point in my personal narrative the history wrapped in the wood of the building in the air held behind the doors and I am sure present in the latent DNA floor to ceiling board under a roof that possibly prevented the seasons from greeting without invitation former students: Toni Morrison, Phylicia Rashad possibly Thurgood Marshall is a song where Rikki Lee Jones cautions like a halcyon claxon’ “You don’t know what you got till its gone”. I didn’t know that Dr.Screck didn’t have to affirm anything in me when I was a young callow mind because I was already there and a Bison no less and no more than the people that came before me that had launched from Howard into the firmament of celestial black being becoming starry inspirations and a promise that can be made possible again in me; achievement while hobbled from the start by the least meritorious thing about me my color of skin. The next day Dr.Schreck passed back the graded papers all for except mine. I wrote a paper in AP Social Studies in High School that Brenda Brewer, a racist in a Margaret Thatcherite wig, used to inculcate the class with The Lost Cause Narrative handily lynching my theory that the Civil War was not about state rights as Lerrone Bennett said in Before The Mayflower but was about enslaved human beings. At the front of the class a woman inn a turd brown dress with matching turd like helmet hard from White Rain Hair Sprayed coiffure rolled the words I wrote off of her tongue and into the trash along side my grade. But as Dr.Schreck read Brenda Brewers classroom terrorism had become awash in truth and my life mission: to write no matter what. I was impressed by my crafted 90 that I cobbled together from glimpses and intellect. I dropped out of Howard because my arrogance had found distasteful the thought of working through school with loans and the call of gay night life was a siren song to a pretty boy that just found out how freedom feels. And as I sat at home ponder and application to UGA on the floor at the foot of my mothers bed the phone jiggled like a shimming shaker. Mom got it before me, When summoned to answer the voice that encouraged me in DC had found me at home to tell me to continue to write. I remember that moment and get soppy eyed. I did continue to write. I thought cocaine had become the pulverized white muse feed my creativity. She was but he also was a rapacious creditor harvesting my soul with each choice I made that was aligned with a sniff. The chemical fetters make for harsher debtors. That Tempest has left me. Now I embark on my journey back.


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