Policy and Poetry: The African American Religious Imagination and Social Transformation

Policy and Poetry: The African American Religious Imagination and Social Transformation


– Good morning everyone.
– Good morning. – I trust that you had your
coffee and your Wheaties and you’re ready to
have some conversation. My name is Eric Williams and
I am the curator of religion at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and we are delighted to be here today for the annual meeting of the
American Academy of Religion to curate a wonderful
conversation on policy and poetry. We are joined today by
an illustrious panel and I’m going to introduce them just now and then we will have after
each panelist has presented we will have a time of
conversation between the panelists and then we’ll open up
for some conversation with the audience. Does that sound all right? Okay, our first panelist is the
Reverend Doctor Brad Braxton who is the director of
The Center for the Study of African American Religious Life and the supervisory curator of religion at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. He holds a PhD in New Testament studies from Emory University where
he was George Woodruff fellow, a master’s degree in theology
from the University of Oxford where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and a bachelor’s degree
in Religious Studies from the University of Virginia where he was a Jefferson Scholar, a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He is the author of three scholarly books and numerous essays exploring
the intersection of religion and social justice. Doctor Braxton is a seasoned educator who has held lectureships
at Georgetown University, Harvard Divinity School,
McCormick Theological Seminary, and professorships at
Southern Methodist University, Vanderbilt University, and
Wake Forest University. Dr. Braxton is also the founder of the Open Church of Maryland, a progressive, as he calls it, funky avant avant-garde church,
in the city of Baltimore. We also have with us today the Reverend Doctor Jennifer Leath who joined the Illiff faculty in 2015 as the Assistant Professor of
Religion and Social Justice. Professor Leath’s research
concentrates on the intersection of sexualities and religions
in sacred communities and spaces of African diaspora. Her scholarship also
engages in intersection of Afro diasporic women’s spiritualties and social activism. Doctor Leath is also an itinerant elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church where she has served as pastor
in White Planes, New York and in Media, Pennsylvania, where she served as associate pastor at churches in Philadelphia,
New York, and New England. She currently serves as the
pastor of the Campbell Chapel AME Church here in Denver. And because of a standing
appointment that she has she will have to leave a little early, but we’re grateful for having
her here with us today. Our next panelist, Mr. Kareem Jackson, who’s better known by
his stage name Tef Poe, short for Teflon Poetics. He is an American rapper,
musician, and activist from St. Louis, Missouri. Tef is one of the co-founders of the Hands Up United Movement and he has consistently
advocated grassroots involvement in improving the lives
of African Americans and in racial justice within and outside of the United States. In his art and activism
he insists on the value of local people taking
charge of conversations about their own communities rather than relying on
national organizations. We also have with us today
Professor Vincent Stringer who has been critically
acclaimed by the Boston Globe as a first class bass baritone for his performances of German Leader. He has appeared in Opera
Oratorio and recital throughout the United
States, Europe, China, Africa, and the Middle East. He has been a featured
artist in performances at the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, and Edinboro, Marlboro, music
festivals, along others. He is an advocate for new forms of music. Professor Stringer holds a
Bachelor of Arts degree in voice from Eastern Nazarene College, Masters in Music Degree
in Opera Performance. He also has an additional diploma in voice from the New England
Conservatory of Music, and he also studied German language at the Institute in Berlin, Germany. Stringer is the founder and
former artistic director of the critically acclaimed New England and National Spiritual Ensembles, and is the founder of the
Baltimore Summer Opera Workshop at Morgan State University where he taught in the Department of Fine and Performing Arts. His CD recordings include
the Langston Hughes Gospel Song Play Black Nativity recorded by Mile Stones
and Marvels Records and a CD for Revels
Records of negro spirituals arranged by John Andrew Ross. Professor Stringer also
serves as on the worship and arts team of the
Open Church of Maryland. Our final panelist, Alanda Clay, is an academic librarian,
scholar of religion, and a techie and poet. She is a PhD candidate the
Free University of Amsterdam in Theology and Religious Studies. Through an early love for reading, telling stories, and writing, Clay discovered poetry to be a space where she could laugh,
cry, heal, and talk back. As a writer she resuscitates the alchemy of creative verbal transmutation. That is she practices and performs the creative power of words whole for cultivating personal and
social change in the now. So we are very fortunate to
have all of them with us today. And we’re going to begin
with some framing comments by Doctor Braxton. – Good morning. Permit me to present some framing comments for our panel from this title, Policy and Poetry, Progressive
African-American Religion in times like these. When AAR approached Eric Williams and me about leading a session exploring the public understanding
of religion and the arts we gladly accepted. The public promotion of religious literacy is a central tenant of our mission at the Smithsonian Center for the Study of
African-American Religious Life. Eric and I did not labor long concerning the specific
topic for the panel. The ah-ha moment of
awareness quickly seized us. I shared with Eric that this panel might be an opportune time
to return to some theorizing I had done during my service
as the program officer for religion in the public
sphere at the Ford Foundation, a philanthropic institution who’s annual grant making activities typically exceed $500 million. Briefly come with me back in time to my first meeting as a grant
maker at the Ford Foundation. One morning in 2014, dozens
of senior leaders at Ford, including vice presidents
and program officers gathered in a conference room in Ford’s historic building
in midtown east Manhattan. One of the vice presidents
graciously introduced me to the group since it
was my first meeting. As the new kid on the team, I thought it best to
listen to the discussion as the group talked about
theories of social change and philanthropy’s role as
a partner in that process. Around the table were brilliant scholars, policy and educational
analysts and attorneys and the atmosphere was replete
with cogent examinations of various dimensions of public policy. As a scholar deeply
committed to progressive social transformation, I was honored to be in that room and delighted to watch
my new colleagues work from the depths of their
respective disciplines. Yet the longer I listened the
more uncomfortable I became. I began having auditory
hallucinations in my third ear. I started hearing the
driving, polyphonic rhythms of the African drum. I was in a well appointed
corporate board room. There was no way I was hearing the drum. But you know, the drum,
that African drum that talks would not leave me alone. It was as if the drum was saying Brad, you are a scholar of religion and you come from people who
were the original architects of religion, art, culture, and commerce. The policy conversation
your colleagues are having around this table is not incorrect however the conversation is incomplete. While this is your first meeting at Ford this is no time for feigned
humility or timidity. Raise your hand, Brad,
and speak your truth. Before I knew it I raised my hand and the Ford Foundation Vice President moderating the meeting called on me and before I knew it I said I appreciate this keen policy analysis but where is the poetry. Where is the music? Is there anything that
hums in what has been said? I continued saying there
is a West African proverb that insists where there is no music the spirit will not come. If we are going to change the world there has got to be some music. Some poetry. In professional philanthropy grant makers often discuss
their theory of social change. Well in my first meeting
at the Ford Foundation several years ago I gave
my theory of social change in a sentence. Where there is no music
the spirit will not come. In an attempt to build out
my theory of social change in ways that could support
tangible grant making I eventually wrote a substantive
concept paper for Ford about the role of policy and poetry in religiously motivated
social transformation. That concept paper has provided
in some significant ways the intellectual scaffolding
for our conversation today. It should also be noted
that when potential grantees would visit me at the Ford Foundation to present ideas for their grant proposals my initial questions to them were often what hums in your grant proposal? Is there any music here? As we set the stage for this conversation about the artistic imagination I want to define and argue
for progressive approaches to African American religion in this cultural moment
that is both perilous and filled with positive possibilities. In my estimation progressive
African-American religion realizes that sacred text
and authoritative traditions must be critically engaged and continually reinterpreted in light of contemporary
circumstances to prevent religion from becoming a relic. Flexibility and a high tolerance
for pluralism and nuance rather than unyielding adherence to narrowly defined
dogmas should characterize the progressive African-American
religious ethos. Thus let me be abundantly clear. As we discuss poetry today and the African-American
religious imagination I do not romanticize
African-American religion. There are some deeply
problematic manifestations of African-American religion
that must be subjected to rigorous critique. For example, after nearly
20 years of serving as a theological educator I am dismayed by how many African-American religious traditions, and especially those with
a Christian orientation, remain enslaved to antiquated
scriptural hermeneutics and colonial theologies. These hegemonic
hermeneutics and theologies oppress women, girls, LGBTQ persons, persons who are economically vulnerable and differently abled and persons who hold different
or no religious affiliation to name a few. Several years ago under
the prophetic prompting of David Daniels at McCormick
Theological Seminary I made an important shift
in my work as a scholar, religious leader, and artistically inspired
social change agent. I decided to stop obsessing
about what was wrong with African American religion. Instead attempting to
channel the creativity and courage of artists and
activists past and present, I rededicated my life
to building theoretical and pragmatic alternatives that provide in the words of that field preacher from Galilee, life and life more abundantly. Consequently in addition
to my full-time work at the Smithsonian Institution and in other academic institutions, I have spent the last seven years establishing the Open Church of Maryland, a radically inclusive and
predominantly African-American religious community in Baltimore. This community is committed to courageous social justice activism and compassionate
interfaith collaboration. When I talk about poetry in progressive African-American religion I am not pontificating. I am practically tangibilitating a religious community that
is basically 50% heterosexual and 50% LGBTQ. A congregation that from its inception has regularly officiated LGBTQ weddings and engaged in meaningful collaboration with sacred siblings from Bahai, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, and religiously
unaffiliated communities. A congregation where
the power of the pulpit is generously shared. As many congregants as were interested received a seminary-level
introduction to preaching course that I taught. And those congregants are as likely to proclaim the good
news on a Sunday morning as I and the other two
seminary trained pastors are. Additionally our pulpit
recently at the Open Church has hosted an African-American
heterosexual Muslim rap artist, a white lesbian
zen Buddhist priest, and an African-American
transgender Catholic priest and the congregation
received them all gladly. This inchoate and still
precarious experiment of radical religious openness which is deeply indebted to
the ancestors Howard Thurman and Zora Neale Hurston, and the village elder, Cecil Williams, has been aided by the purposeful embrace of creativity and the
artistic imagination. It was the artistic imagination in a seminal sermon that I preached in the congregation’s infancy that enabled us to replace
rigid fundamentalist notions of biblical authority with more spirit-infused
African-derived approaches to religious authority that values spirit and our embodied experiences
and rituals as sacred text that are as holy as scripture. Furthermore, in the main hallway of the Open Church’s facility we literally have a rotating art gallery curated by Professor Vincent Stringer from whom we will hear shortly. The gallery showcases beautiful
and provocative renderings from Baltimore artists and some of the artists
occasionally visit us to discuss their attempts to
channel a sacred creativity that can change the world. The African-American religious imagination is sorely needed in this moment to challenge and change
external systems of domination. And that same imagination is needed to exhort some African-American
religious communities to confess and repent of their complicity in the very systems of domination
they seemingly protest. Furthermore these African-American
religious communities can signal the authenticity
of their confessions and repentant by creating inclusive and equitable communities
where believers embody the Lord’s prayer as much as they pray it. Thy kin-dom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Speaking of heaven, I will conclude my
reflections with brief musings on the connection among
the artistic imagination, pedagogy, and cosmology. For those of us who are classroom teachers we regularly interact with millennials and very soon Generation Z will flood our college classrooms. These emerging social media savvy leaders are zealously seeking more
meaningful connections between higher education
and social transformation. I argue that the artistic imagination can provide access to much needed and often neglected pedagogical power and that resource is cosmological power. The African-American religious imagination has taught me that there
are dimensions of spirit and power available to us beyond what our finite senses
can detect at any moment. According to African-American religion the visible and invisible
dimensions of existence are connected by spirit. The eternal life force
animating the cosmos with divine purpose. When honorable members
of African tribe die they continue to live as spirits. These ancestral sprits
provide moral guidance to those who are still physically alive. African-derived ways of knowing acknowledge and humbly
access the wisdom and power of the ancestors. My openness to music and
poetry in the classroom has enabled me to summon
cosmological power through the ancestors and that power has seemingly
taken my teaching at times to seventh heaven. My poetry-enabled cosmological pedagogy was effectively road tested recently at Harvard Divinity School. In spring semester of 2016
Doctor Eric Williams and I taught a Harvard Divinity School course titled Preaching, Healing, and Justice. In the course students
witnessed first-hand the social significance of
performing religious practices with intellectual sophistication
and artistic finesse. In the final assignment of the course students were asked to preach a eulogy and create a funeral liturgy for one of the recent victims of police-related lethal
force, Rekia Boyd, Michael Brown, Tanisha Anderson, Eric Gardner, or Freddy Gray. Many students in the course acknowledged how the relevance and specificity
of the final assignment plumbed the depths of
their emotive intelligence and aesthetic imagination
as much as it probed their cognitive intelligence. Because of the courses
unrelenting commitment to the artistic imagination the course even attracted
an MIT graduate student in architecture and urban
planning who audited the course. This student began thinking more deeply about the creation of
equitable public spaces in the urban landscape as
a form of proclamation. Or I might say poetry. While Doctor Williams and I had carefully prepared the syllabus I’m convinced, persuaded, that the success of the course
was ultimately the result of spirit and cosmological
power unleashed through poetry. I’ve got to tell ya all what happened on the first day of class. The first day of class I was honored to be a lecturer at Harvard. It was an exciting opportunity and so proud was my wife Lisetta that she flew with me to Boston to sit in that first class
in Harvard Divinity School. And yet the drum kept beating. And this classroom was
like any other classroom I had inherited across my
many years of teaching. And so on that first day
of class, even at Harvard, I did what I always do. I said there is a West African proverb that where there is no music
the spirit will now come. And I launched out, ♪ I woke up this morning with my mind ♪ ♪ Stayed on freedom ♪ And Doctor Williams who also
has an orchestra in his throat joined with me and we began
to saturate the atmosphere at Harvard Divinity School
with sound theology. And as that sound theology began creating acoustical
hospitality something happened. I told you that my wife,
Lisetta, joined me. My wife is a serious
professional businesswoman with a degree from the
University of Virginia and an MBA from Wake Forrest University and a leader in the
financial planning industry in this country. A serious professional woman
who also flows very nimbly in manifestations of African
traditional religion. And since she and I
visited Benin and Ghana she has regularly been a medium. What some of the sisters might call, she is a host for
visitations of the spirit. And the moment that sound
theology began at Harvard, I saw it happen. The students didn’t know
what happened but I saw it! The moment that the poetry
was unleashed my wife started, the tears were coming, she
began rocking back and forth and I knew that at that moment the ancestors had walked into the room. She later told me that she
has a visitation at Harvard of Yaa Asantewaa, the
Ashanti female warrior who fought back the British. Now I know this may make you uncomfortable but at Harvard those of us
who function in the artistic are comfortable saying that that day and every subsequent day
the ancestors walked in and said we’re so glad
you made room for us. We concluded the semester
after lots of singing and crying and arguing, and doing all the things
that you would imagine by talking about the
body and kinesthetics, anesthetics, and poetry, and a group of religious leaders, many of whom will never go
serve religious congregations but who were opened perhaps for the first time in their lives to the artistic dimensions
of social change. We concluded the semester at Harvard with an anointing service. I told a colleague of
mine who was an alumnus that we did an anointing, and before I could get the word anointing he said you did a what, at
Harvard Divinity School! And not one of those social change agents, most of whom were Millennials, in any way rejected on that last day when we put oil on their
foreheads and encouraged them in whatever spirit, you
go forth, to go forth and shake up the world for
the sake of righteousness. I guess I’m trying to tell you you have not taught until you have taught when the ancestors show up. (audience applauds) – I’d like you to join me. Just close your eyes and experience the vibration of sound as I invoke the ancestors. ♪ Guide me, hold on ♪ ♪ Great Jehovah ♪ ♪ Pilgrim through this barren land ♪ ♪ I am weak but thou art mighty ♪ ♪ Hold me with thy, thy powerful hand ♪ ♪ Bread of heaven ♪ ♪ Bread of heaven ♪ ♪ Feed me ’till I want no more ♪ ♪ Open now thy crystal fountain ♪ ♪ When’s the healing stream doth flow ♪ ♪ Let the fire and cloudy pillar ♪ ♪ Be thou still my strength and shield ♪ ♪ Strong deliverer, strong deliverer ♪ ♪ Be thou still my strength and shield ♪ (humming) – Dedicate this moment to Sun Ra. Hmm, with gratitude for the doors he opens to liberated poetics that
carry us to Afro-futures beyond this world. Blood and love, it is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other
and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains. Assata, she who struggles. Olugbala, love for the people. Shakur, the thankful. Penned these words in her autobiography. Having articulated this recondita, rising from the ashes of the civil rights and Black Power movements. Yes, this exile, this woman, now even in political asylum in Cuba following her escape from prison in 1979, having been unjustly arrested
and convicted, Assata Shakur. Yes she inspires a becoming generation of Black and Brown people
fighting for freedom. Assata’s words and work remind us that even if and when we must take refuge there is no asylum from
the struggle for justice. Struggles for justice are the plumb lines that measure authentic living. Her words were among those
preached and heard and chanted in the nascent stages of what birth as the Black Lives Matter movement and the movement and
movements for black lives that have sprouted since
the murder of Michael Brown. And of course we know that
it is not just his murder that activates us, but a continuous stream of lynchings since Black people were
identified as work machine bodies and stolen from the soil of a
continent some called Africa, up to today, even as we continue to track the suspicious and untimely deaths of Black and Brown activists
who have been on the ground sacrificing time, talent, sanity, and life for our
liberation and our freedom. Our duty to fight for our
freedom, our duty to win, is the demand of blood soaked soil. This soil cried out to
Assata Olugbala Shakur when she wrote Rima Olugbala, a member of the Black Liberation Army who was framed and arrested along with Assata and Ronald Meyers. Rima died while trying to escape from the Brooklyn House of Detention. Another Black man who
died trying to be free. Assata wrote for Rima
Olugbala, young blood, they think they killed you
but I saw you yesterday standing with your hands in your pockets waiting for the real deal to go down. I saw you smiling your fuck-it smile, blood in your eyes, your
pumping freedom, young blood. They think they killed you
but I saw you yesterday in the playground. Black skin, sweaty, shiny, hurling your ball bomb into
the hoop right on target. Won’t be no game next time
’cause you ain’t hardly playing. They think they killed you
but I saw you yesterday with your back against the wall, muscles bulging against the chains, eyes absorbing truth, lips speaking it, heart learning how to love,
head learning how to hate. Bloody, blood ready to flow
for freedom, young blood. Young bloods ain’t got no blood to waste in no syringes, on no bathroom
floors, in no strange lands, delaying other young bloods freedom we don’t need no tired
blood, no anemic blood, no blood clots in our new body. They think they killed you
but I saw you yesterday all them young bloods must
have gave you a transfusion. All that strong blood,
all that rich blood, all that angry blood
flowing through your veins toward tomorrow. The constant of Black and Brown
people suffering and dying at disproportionate rates and dying in the most unnatural ways. Our bodies, our lives, and our realities, always mediating, mitigating,
navigating, and negotiating. Racism has a way of
drawing out and driving a macabre poetry. While the dismantling of systemic racism often demands that votes
be cast and counted, that lawyers be called and
legal documents be reviewed, that policies read, rejected,
revised, and reconsidered, be lifted up, it is the muted songs of
the souls of Black folks that seep out in our
joy, in our suffering, in our joy despite suffering,
in our suffering despite joy. It is the poetry of life through which we can see our way clear to the policies and proposals that nurture us to love each
other and support each other, having nothing to lose but our chains. We who struggle recognize
that ours is not a fight that can be fought without soul. Ours is not a fight that
can be fought without love. And when the soul that
fights is filled with love, its poetic power opens prophetic
possibilities everywhere. Love cannot be contained,
love changes policies, love overwhelms policies,
love extends beyond policies. Love is going high when others go low. Actually love is the only viable option. Love cannot be contained. Soul cannot be killed. The soul filled with
love is unconquerable. And so we must allow the spirit
to lead where love leads. In the face of the modern day
lynchings of Black people, my learning and teaching
patterns have changed. This is the demand that the
blood-soaked soil makes of me. From a reading group at
Harvard Divinity School to a Black Lives Matter
course with Darnel Moore, from a Black Lives Matter
Course with Darnel Moore to a bicentennial contemplation of the social justice
legacies of the AME church. From a contemplation of the
justice legacy of the church to a revamping of a
Black Lives Matter course with our beloved Ferguson
activist, Hands Up United founder, and rapper, recording artist Tef Poe. From the revamp course to the
pulpit of Campbell chapel, AME Church where Poe
declared that Tupac Shakur was among the most significant
of our modern day prophets. From the pulpit to discourse
of fellowship with Tef Poe and Bridy Harris. And from this dispersive fellowship to a new course on God and Tupac, without the queer response of fighting souls filled with love, despair is the only rational
response to blood-soaked soil. Without the queer response of fighting souls filled with love, the self-fulfilling prophesy
of every social policy procedure and proposal would be the demise of
Black and Brown folks. But fighting souls filled with love demand something different and though we may not fit in
any categories or boxes well, our demands are clear. Our freedom must be won,
our chains must be lost, our love and support for one
another must be unwavering. And of these demands love
is the author, driver, and quintessential tea leaves. The demand of fighting, bloody
soil, souls filled with love is material change. The son of Afini Shakur,
the godson of Assata Shakur, Tupac, was a child of Black Panthers. He was a child who took up the
mantle to fight for justice, the one to whom it was revealed that the hate you give little
infants fucks everyone, was far from perfect, but he understood that
hate was not fertile soil. A lyrical genius, Tupac
disrupted theological conclusions about heaven and the ghetto, as well as saints and gangsters. Tupac also recognized
that you need companions, partners, learners and teachers, to accompany on the path toward freedom. However it is no secret, again, that Tupac was far from perfect. But there are no perfect prophets. There are no uncomplicated prophets. On capitalism and on
matters of gender sexuality we’re left with a complicating and at times unflattering icon. Yet for my colleague Tef Poe there’s not only something about Tupac that must be appreciated and respected, there’s something about
Tupac for Tef that inspires. And the inspiration happens
at crossroad of faith, activism, and the performing arts. This space of inspiration
is where the fighting soul filled with love insists on
living and refusing to die. Tef, thank you for being here today, for your place in the fight for freedom, and for helping us to see
our North Star together at the crossroads of faith,
activism and performance. Thank you for helping us
to see and never forget that it is for us to follow the spirit that leads to liberation. So to conclude I return to Assata. Tupac’s godmother, the godmother of our
contemporary movement, one who knows, who shows us how, even now living in our spirits, how poetics can shape our policy as we continue to fight for our freedom loving and supporting one another. There are more battles to fight. There are more prophesies to be spoken. There are more prophets to
be protected and harbored. More lives will be lost, more poems, songs, books,
and papers must be written. More protests must be
planned and executed. More blood will be shed. We do not celebrate any bloodshed, still remembering that even
when we die we are not dead and that when we face
death we still have breath. Assata Olugbala Shakur encourages us. Love is contraband in hell, ’cause love is an acid
that eats away bars. But you, me, and tomorrow
hold hands and make vows that struggle will multiply. The hacksaw has two blades. The shotgun has two barrels. We are pregnant with freedom. We are a conspiracy. (audience applauds) – I see it clearly. We reinvented the glass window. Powered up, like a battery. We are as ’bout as different
as a alien’s anatomy. The abnormal genius, my
people ought to get that. I’m throwing gang signs at Hitler. I’m time traveling, my mindless behavior is more
talented than Justin Bieber. My confines combine, Christ in our life, for the non-believers. Infinities final jokes,
this is where it starts. I’ll tell ’em we created
more hurricanes than Harlem. Conspiracy theories using my
lyrics to get ’em through. If you don’t believe in
me, the conspiracy is you. Let ’em morph in my
endorsements of the THC. I’m hard to find like a video on MTV. I’m praying for Assata. F the penitentiary. Optimus prime, laces till
I conquer the century. 106 and Park, I was
undefeated on BET, Black God, like Master Farad on the TV. My cousin is in the grave, but the message in the seed. He said Kareem, this ain’t a dream. I’m right here if you need me. I’m better than the industry, but the industry really don’t care. So F the industry. Infinity is what I’m living for. Go to church with my parents,
repented for my sins. They told us that Jesus was
white so the story begins. Why did they lie to my people, give us hope through religion. Obama was in the Oval Office but he ain’t treat us different. America is so ugly, she
don’t love us at all. People dyin’ in Ferguson,
she won’t get involved. People dying in Palestine,
she won’t get involved. People dying in Chicago,
she won’t get involved. I’m speaking the truth. I will not try to dumb it down. Put my hands in shackles, yeah. Leave my blood on the ground. Christopher Columbus, George
Washington, Adolf Hitler, I might not be there to touch ya but the universe gonna get ya. Donald Trump is a coward
and I mean it sincerely. Send your troopers to kill me. Let’s go to war if you hear me. Ain’t no love for my people so ain’t no hope for the system. When they do build a school,
they use it to deceive us. I want to give a shout-out
to our co-instructor, Bridy. It was actually her idea
that sparked the birth of the Tupac course to me,
her, and Jennifer Leath to teach at Illiff. I’m gonna try to be brief, ’cause I could be a bit long with it. We live in a time that is
completely complicated. Everybody’s looking for
the birth and the dawn or the next Malcolm, or the
next Martin Luther King, and the next Assata Shakur. But at the same time don’t
nobody want to go to jail. Don’t nobody want to get assassinated. So we have people who present
these drastic radical dilemmas but we don’t want to
radically approach them, the radical dilemma. We talk about this
mythological impeding race war. That Donald Trump trying to
start a race war, really. Because in a war there’s
casualties on both sides. So war means when you go get your gun we gonna go get our guns. And in theory I hate
that the wording of that because Black people in this country have never preemptively sparked any form of a racial conflict. So the notion that we’re gonna
finally in 2019, 2020, decide this is it ya all. We gonna go get our guns
and participate in this Lord of the Rings, Chronical
of Narnia, race war that is supposedly being cooked up. That’s just a lie. They got more guns than
Baghdad in the ghetto and they not trippin’
off bringing those guns to combat White Supremacists whatsoever. So even that narrative
of framing the victim in that situation or the
recipient of the violence from one party to a next, we still don’t frame that
correctly because the race war, we are declaring war on nobody. The war has been declared on us. We’re still peacefully
trying to negotiate that. And this is complicated
because in this country we talk about the rule of law a lot but there are virtually no laws that holistically apply to White citizens. Yeah, you can go to jail for
murder, get a speeding ticket. But I mean holistic, the weight, the full gravity of the
law if you and I commit the same exact crime, I’m gonna reap the wrath
of that more so than you. So in 1964 there were
22 million Black people in this country. In 2010 the census says
there about 42 million. So if we do the math you’ll see that this number has doubled, but our political power
has drastically diminished. And I’m into political science. I’m a three time Harvard Fellow. I don’t have a high school diploma. All of this magical stuff they tell ya all about how to succeed
in life means nothing. So when I teach at Harvard I tell these, I talk about this stuff very candidly. Our political power has diminished. And when you look at the
scenario from a more upclose lens you ask yourself what happened. Where is it at? And we forgot about our points
of equity as a collective. We birth culture, we birth essentially
every major revolution that this country has seen on this soil, we’ve been a part of. I’m talking all the way back
to the Revolutionary War when the French brought
boatloads of Haitians here to help these settlers that
couldn’t even plant a corn seed fight the most powerful
empire in the world. So we’ve participated in
the process step-by-step, day-by-day, inch-by-inch. Yet we haven’t retained the power. We haven’t retained the
benefit from our blood, sweat, and tears. And that’s partially
because like I just said, we forgot about out points of equity. We birth revolution. When something ain’t right,
we’re the most marginalized. We gonna speak up. If I see somebody mistreatin’ a woman and I’m like, no, that’s not cool. If I see somebody mistreatin’
one of my queer friends, no that’s not cool. We speak up. We put our necks on the line. But our points of equity are culture, creativity, and the
notion that we understand what struggle is. We understand that right and wrong does not have a gray area. And we have moved ourselves
into this apathetic place of forgiveness for the wrongdoings that have been not only
committed against us, but people of color globally. And the global diaspora
is really important in this conversation because we have a generation
that loves to quote Assata. I can’t do the Assata
chant with you all no more ’cause ain’t nobody gonna do nothing if the police storm in here and actually arrest me after
we do the Assata chant. So I refuse to participate in that chant with people that are just gonna
throw her words at the wall like she isn’t actually living in exile. So I’m talking about revolutionaries
more so than activists. It’s my personal goal that by the time I leave this planet to be identified as a
person that’s participating in the heritage of Black
radical revolutionaries. I believe Jesus Christ
was a revolutionary. I believe Tupac Shakur is a revolutionary. I believe Laura Hill is a revolutionary. There are so many different modules of what an actual
revolutionary looks like. And all too often we get
stuck in this framework that means that we have to
adhere to it looking like this, flowing like this, sounding
like this, feeling like this. And I just don’t believe any of that. So you look at the situation. Even after we’ve had our
ancestors’ wildest imagination, a Black man in the Oval
Office with an Arabic name. The president’s who’s
middle name was Hussein. And you say, what happened? Four years of that,
and then what happened? Like where has it gone? I would render that a lot of
our understanding of empire and application of empire, and the faces of empire, and the different type of
people that run empire, we’ve separated ourself from that heritage while steadily uplifting our ancestors as modules of resistance. And I don’t think that my
ancestors would approve of senseless drone killings and invasions of African
countries and mass incarceration despite whoever’s in the Oval Office. So that’s just not an agenda that I believe Black
radicalism participated in. So the art is important
because the politics become so caveated that
there’s often no real solutions in the politics. The art is what births a
revolutionary mind-frame. Those kids that were outside at Ferguson and they said, you know, they showed up with the loud speaker and they were playing Little Boosie and the song they were
playing from Little Boosie was F the police. And when they played it and that feelin’ and that emotion, that created a political response from a cultural point of reference. Like something culturally
sparked a revolution in that moment. And if there was no music there then we probably wouldn’t
had had a uprising. And day after day, different
kids would come out, make chants, and we
would almost have battles with who had the best chants. And one thing happens,
and another thing happens, and another thing happens. And we go through the winter and we find ourselves lapping
the Montgomery Bus Boycott. But the narrative that
gets framed around it is oh, they lacked sophistication because you saw a couple of us out there with our shirts off, pants saggin’, and couple of face tattoos. I’m from the ghetto and I
went to the United Nations to testify against this country against the terrorism of police brutality. I got back off the plane
from the United Nations and slept in the ghetto that night. To me that’s sophisticated. So I try to just uplift the
fact that we need the artist but we need the artist to
be greater than just artist, ’cause art for the sake
of art, you can keep it. You can wipe your butt with that and flush it down the toilet. We got enough art for the sake of art. If the art isn’t gonna lock arms with me when I’m being shot at by the police, if the art doesn’t view that we are in the same type of dilemma,
that this is life or death, then I don’t need your art. And I think that creates a pathway for us all to see what role
should be in this moment. I look back at when Russia
was fighting Germany. And you got two cruel
dictators against each other. You got Stalin versus Hitler. Hitler has Stalin cornered. They couldn’t really mess
with the German army. America really didn’t
want to get in the war despite what history tells you. They were like hey, it’s the
Germans versus the Russians. Who cares if they kill each other off? So the Russians are getting
slaughtered by the Germans and Stalin says hey, if you
retreat we’re going to kill you. He was talking to the
citizens of the land. Now that’s drastic. That’s over the top. That’s partially insane. Like why is he killing his own citizens? But there’s a caveated logic in that where we’re trying to save
the preservation of our lives. We are being slaughtered
by this engrossing regime. I need every citizen possible to bear arms against
this engrossing regime and figure out what they’re gonna do as we combat what could
potentially be the demise of our society, our religion, our culture, and our possibility to create offspring. So history, I’m gonna wrap it up. I got five minutes. But history teaches us so many
lessons that we should study and the art is just
important in attaching us to those lessons, peace. (audience applauds) – Good morning again. I’d like you to join me
in this next few minutes in an experience that I’m
gonna lead you through in song and poetry. The first poem I’m going to share with you is from James Weldon Johnson. A poem where he celebrates and recognizes the great contribution of
those unnamed, unknown artists who created the songs we
know as the spirituals. Oh Black and unknown bards, oh Black and unknown bards of long ago, how came your lips to
touch the sacred fire? How in your darkness did you come to know the power and the beauty
of the minstrels liar? Who first from midst his
bonds lifted his eyes? Who first from out the
lone watch, still and long, feeling the ancient faith of prophets rise within his dark kept soul burst into song? ♪ Steal away, steal away, ♪ ♪ Steal away to Jesus ♪ ♪ Steal away, steal away home ♪ ♪ I ain’t got long to stay here ♪ Heart of what slave poured out such melody as steal away to Jesus? On its strings his spirit must
have nightly floated free, though still about his
hands he felt his chains. Who heard great Jordan roll? Whose star-ward eyes
saw chariots swing low? And who was he that breath
that comforting melodic sigh, Nobody Knows The Trouble I See? ♪ Nobody knows the trouble I see, Lord ♪ ♪ Nobody knows the trouble I see ♪ ♪ Nobody knows the trouble I see, Lord ♪ ♪ Nobody knows but Jesus ♪ What merely living clod,
what captive thing, could up towards God through
all its darkness grope, and find within its deadened heart to sing these songs of sorrow,
love, and faith, and hope? How did it catch that subtle undertone. That note in music not
heard with the ears? How sound the elusive reed so seldom blown which stirs the soul and
melts the heart to tears? Not that great German master
in his dream of harmonies that thundered amongst
the stars at creation, ever heard a thing nobler
than Go Down Moses. Mark its bars, how like
a mighty trumpet call they stir the blood. Such are the notes that men have sung going to valorous deeds. Such tones there were
that helped make history when time was young. ♪ Go down Moses ♪ ♪ Way down in Egypt land ♪ ♪ Tell old Pharaoh to let my people go ♪ ♪ Go down Moses ♪ ♪ Way down in Egypt land ♪ ♪ Tell old Pharaoh to let my people go ♪ There is a wide, wide wonder in it all, that from degraded rest and servile toil the fiery spirit of the sear should call these simple children of the sun and soil. Oh Black slave singers,
gone, forgot, unknown. You, you a long, long line of those who’ve sung untaught, unknown, unnamed, have stretched out upward
seeking the divine. You sing not deeds of heroes or of kings. No chant of bloody war, no exhalting peon of arms won triumph, but your humble strings
you touched in cord with music empyrean. You sang far better than you knew the songs that for your hungry
listeners hearts sufficed, still live. But more than this, to you
belongs you sang a race from wood and stone to Christ. ♪ Little boy, how old are you ♪ ♪ Little boy, how old are you ♪ ♪ Little boy, how old are you ♪ ♪ Sir, I’m only 12 years old ♪ ♪ This little boy had them to remember ♪ ♪ That he was born the 25th of December ♪ ♪ Lawyers and doctors were amazed, ♪ ♪ And had to give the
little boy the praise ♪ ♪ Little boy, how old are you ♪ ♪ Little boy, how old are you ♪ ♪ Little boy, how old are you ♪ ♪ Sir, I’m only 12 years old ♪ ♪ Lawyers and doctors stood and wondered ♪ ♪ As though they had
been struck by thunder ♪ ♪ Then they decided while they wondered ♪ ♪ That all mankind must come undone ♪ ♪ Little boy, how old are you ♪ ♪ Little boy, how old are you ♪ ♪ Little boy, how old are you ♪ ♪ Sir, I’m only 12 years old ♪ ♪ The last time the little boy was seen ♪ ♪ He was standing on
Mount Olive at Green ♪ ♪ When he disbursed all the crowd ♪ ♪ He entered up into a cloud ♪ ♪ Little boy, how old are you ♪ ♪ Little boy, how old are you ♪ ♪ Little boy, how old are you ♪ ♪ Sir, I’m only 12 years old ♪ Mothers lament, so many names unknown. So many sons lost. I couldn’t sleep last night. My mind preoccupied with worry. I couldn’t reason why but
it kept me awake all night. I paced and paced the floor. I prayed and prayed for peace. I asked the Lord to calm my thoughts and help me get some needed sleep, but still my mind would not let go. No word from God, no sleep, no, no. Just worry, worry through the night. And hope for peace in the morning light. I worry for his life, my son. Each time he leaves the house a Black man-child isn’t safe out there in this angry world
filled with hate and fear. There’s so much danger on the city streets with random violence far and near. My son, his life could be cut
short if accused of crimes. This is my fear. He could be crucified at 12 years old on a playground with his
toy gun like Tamir Rice. In two seconds flat shot
down by a Cleveland cop. He could be kidnapped at 14 and crucified in woods by a southern
stream like Emmett Till whose hopes were killed. His dreams of summer float cold and still. So many names unknown. So many lost sons, so many broken hearts. So many lights dimmed. He could be dragged behind a truck, dismembered limb from limb
like James Bird, Junior, crucified by angry hateful racist men. He could be murdered at 17
while walking home one night like Trayvon Martin right on his street confronted by a would-be cop. He could be crucified in broad
daylight like Michael Brown, shot down unarmed, assailed
by a Ferguson police that feared his brown skin and his might. So many names unknown! So many lost sons. So many hearts broken. So many lights dimmed. He could be crucified at 27 by a policeman on an L.A. street who’d find his autistic
movements threatening like the ones of Steven Eugene Washington. He could be killed at 28, shot down right near our garden gate like Dee Rod Redco who never rose on that Easter Sunday more. So many names unknown. So many lost sons! So many broken hearts,
so many lights dimmed! The threat is very real out there, but who’s the bigger threat? My son, our community, the police? Where exactly does the danger lay? My son could leave and not return except in a coffin, in chains, or an urn. Could I lose my child, my flesh, my blood? His life be cut down by hatred? Dear Lord, protect my son today. Keep him in your care, I pray. Teach him wisdom to respond
and not react with anger. Show him, Lord, the way back home to the love in his mother’s heart. Preserve him for a long
life filled with mercy, justice, and courage. Yee sons of Jacob, born of Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah, let your light shine bright and strong as a beacon through this darkened age. So many names unknown, so many sons lost, so many hearts broken. So many lights dimmed. And for those parents who’ve lost a child, give them peace within their hearts. Heal their wounds and sooth their pain. Guide them with your perfect light. Amen. Ignorance delight! Just have some! Ignorance delight. Headlines! Headlines, that’s what we see. Sensationalized stories,
not nearly complete. Stories diluted by corporate elite. Powerful players who control by deceit. They’ll keep us distracted
with conflicts and lies and stories of wars that
may threaten our lives. So some can do business
and keep us knee deep in credit card debt and medical receipts. A system of commerce
which is fueled by oil is part of the plot which
still keeps us in toil. The toil that bathes us in ignorant bliss and launders the wealthy
all starchy and crisp. Are we unaware of the state that we’re in because we rely on the anchorman’s grin while sopping up stories
he serves us each night with biscuits and gravy
and ignorance delight. Thank you. (audience applauds) Those are just… Through my life poetry has always meant a tremendous amount to me. It’s been a means of
expression, creativity, has been a part of what
has made me who I am today. As a child I would, in elementary school, my mother would say the teachers would write on my report card give him a pencil or
crayons and some paper and sit him in a corner
and he’ll be quiet all day, but he’ll create something. From a child, I was always
engaged in the inner world. I came from a large family. I’m the youngest of my
mother’s nine children, I’m the youngest boy. But I am the 22nd child of
my father’s 23 children. And so creativity and alone time was an important thing for me. I could live in my yard
under the trees, in the dirt, with my cars, and play my games
with my cars making cities, creating stories, creating
all kinds of things. That stuff continued with me. My parents wanted me to be a musician and be a church musician. They put me in piano lessons
like they did my brothers. I didn’t want to play for the church. I did, but I didn’t want to. What I wanted to do was do my art. When I got to high school
my high school teacher heard this voice and she was
like there’s something in you. I got in high school, went into the talented and gifted program, and I though I was gonna
be in the art program. I sat in the art classes. That teacher came in and
snatched me out of those classes and took me into the music classes. I’m giving you this background of me because you have to
understand that poetry, music, and the visual arts were
the things that were that brought me out, that brought me from a world
where I was in a poor family, in a urban city, in a
struggling environment, but it’s the creative arts
that have brought me to today. And so I’m grateful for that and then to think about how
the traveling and opportunities helped me to form a world view and to see what’s happening
all around the world in the places that I’ve been and to work with students who
come from various backgrounds. It’s allowed me to express something in poetry and in song that
can get people’s attention, that can reach them, and
perhaps pluck the heart string, cause them to get up and do something about their circumstance. And the power of the creativity that we’re talkin’ about
that impacts this policy is being able to find
our voices in this way. I was able to take some
really tough things and use my voice in a palatable way to get someone’s attention,
to make them listen. I could go screaming at them. I can go in anger and rage, but that doesn’t get
me where I need to go. It is my love, it is the love. Love is the truth about who we are. It is love or fear. I choose to live from love. And to use the creative
expression of poetry and music to share love. And so we’ll have that
opportunity to share more, but I just wanted to just give you a little bit of background on
what brought me here today. Thank you. (audience applauds) – Good morning. I have a few thank yous
and a couple of warnings and then I’ll get started. First I’d like to thank my creator. And I’d like to thank the ancestors. I’d like to thank Doctor
Braxton and Doctor Williams for inviting me. I’d like to thank you and I’d like to thank my panelist who are absolutely amazing. Now my warnings. I will be discussing lynching, clergy sexual abuse, and gun violence, and I also may say a few explicit words. So in light of that I didn’t
want you to be surprised. I will be sharing also from my book that I just recently published which is called Know
That You Have Been Loved. It’s my first collection of poetry. And so I want to start, or what I started with was the question that Doctor Braxton aimed at me which was how would you teach
Black poetry and religion? So the first idea that I came up with was actually connecting James Cone’s book, The Cross and The Lynching
Tree, with lynching poems. And Cone, you know he kind of discusses this paradox of the cross, and also talks about how
the symbol of the cross and the lynching tree
come together in America. He also talks about the
harsh reality of Black life in the lynching era, which
was from 1880 to 1940. And he discusses lynching spectacles. The first poem I’m going
to read is about Du Bois and his witnessing of
one of these spectacles. The title of the poem is
called Du Bois Flashing Back On Seeing Sam Holes in the
Grocery Store, April 24, 1899. The display was immaculate and colorful, organized by size and price. The merchandise arrived
only the night before. Small pieces placed in
jars with large labels. Knuckles, liver, heart, skull, grabbed up at once by eager
awaiting souvenir hunters all scrambling to find,
squabbling to possess, what was left of the charred remains of one Sam Holes in Nunan, Georgia. His lynching long complete, ashes from hoses, cut off penis and ears, mixed with small remnants
of his heart and liver were sliced, scooped up,
and kept as mementos. The popular lynching event boasted of having over
2,000 in attendance. The high price relic
stuff, his mutilated body, were quickly make their way to Atlanta and were not displayed to
left of a weeks worth of flour and to the right of fresh
peaches and oranges. On seeing Sam Holes in the grocery store Du Bois stood still for a
moment on Mitchell Street. As the horror of seeing a
Black man’s burned flesh flying off the shelves amid such unrestrained White glee singed his hopes for the
presentation of facts or evidence and destroyed his decorum. Du Bois slowly turned around to walk home. There will be no teaching
today, no research. There will be no polite
pleasantries exchanged. There will be no returning to my life as it was the day before. Instead flashing back to that day, Du Bois would say one could not be a calm, cool, and detached scientist while Negros are lynched,
murdered, and starved. I also wanted to kind of
mention some other poems that might be included, namely Langston Hughes
poem Christ In Alabama written in 1931, Lucille Clifton’s poem Jasper Texas, 1998. (coughs) Which is written about
the incident of James Byrd being dragged behind a
pickup truck and beheaded. And then also Richard Wright’s poem, Between The World And Me, which is actually written
from the perspective of the corpse. I wanted to talk about some
of the relationships I see between Black religion and Black poetry, especially protest poetry. I’ve always loved spoken word and the protest poems
of the 60s and the 70s. The last poets and Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, they’re all some of my favorite poets. And what I think Black poetry really does for Black religion is it
strips away all pretenses of respectability and addresses
the problems directly. So in that sense it
can serve as a critique of Black religion and
its failure to speak out when it needs to. Really any religion. There is of course also
the religious influence on Black poetry and we can
see this in the very beginning because poets such as Phillis Wheatley, they write anti-slavery poetry which often calls upon the moral character of White Christians to change. So this next poem is short. It’s called East Side and it’s
in remembrance of my cousin, Thurman Lacey, who was
shot at point blank range in a car during a drug deal gone bad. I heard about it on the
news the night before and I said oh, how sad, only to find out that my cousin was dead. This is called East Side. Five O don’t come to the East Side until a father lies dead in the street. Yeah, the cops don’t come on our corner until a young mother never returns home. The boys in blue don’t
give a damn about our hood until our precious
daughters are snatched away at the school bus stop. And when our sons have scarlet fountains flowing from their faces, the police knock on our doors at 3:00 a.m. and say I’m sorry. Now I want to move on to a
different type of poetry. I’m actually moving on to theo-poetics. And James Hill describes theo-poetics. as the ability of Black
religious communities to imaginatively express
their faith convictions through art, song, poetry, oral witness, and other embodied practices. He notes that theo-poetic practices of Black religious communities
were used to inaugurate alternative worlds of anti-colonial and socio-political possibility. Worlds that were often sequestered from them by the Negro political forces that surrounded them. So this first poem is actually
a poem about my brother who passed away about nine years ago from a brain aneurism. And I like to think about it in terms of a cosmic eschatology. He didn’t die instantly. He died a year after the aneurism. And so I spent some of my
school time caregiving, serving as a caregiver. So anyway, in this poem
I’d like to think that in his last moments he felt the total interconnectedness of things as he was united with the divine. Alive. After I die, if you could tell them this, in the night the walls disappeared and in the day the walls returned. After I die, if you could tell them, what was once cracked
plaster and peeling paint, worn brick and crumbling mortar, rusting steel and hope-stained
glass, melted away. In its place instead were
fields full of flaring suns and dancing moons, exploding
nebula and expanding galaxies. Tell them the stardust
I once was became one in a passionate embrace with the cosmos. And in the moment I left
while taking my last breath I never felt more alive. And this poem, this next poem, is called Me Too, Black Church, Me Too. Now this poem is calling
for ecclesiastical change and healing for survivors
of clergy sexual abuse. The Catholic church is not the only body facing a crisis in clergy misuse of power. Protestant churches are also
facing this same crisis. This poem is inspired
by an experience I had while in grade school of a teacher who was also a pastor who attempted to rape me in his office. When his grip over my
body loosened temporarily I ran out of his office. I was so embarrassed and humiliated that I didn’t tell anyone. He had already had sex
with two of my friends. I also experienced a sexual assault my first year of college at 16. The rape was so brutal that
I had a dissociative episode where I stayed in a corner
of a room for a week. These are the experiences
that inform this poem. And I also want to say that in this poem I’m reading against the text
of Second Samuel on Tamar and Amnon. I see Amnon as what we could
describe as a child predator, a rapist. A perpetrator guilty of
premeditated sexual assault. And I feel that until
churches can take a firm stand on clergy sexual ethics, and respond to clergy
abuse with swift action instead of silence, they will continue to
be seen in the community as unsafe spaces and like David himself as a harborer of rapist and abusers and other men and women behaving badly. In silence and doing nothing perpetrates continue to
destroy the lives of others, the path of pain and
destruction they cause is allowed to fester and continue. What happens in silence is very different than what happens in the dark. No one’s eyes are closed and the lights are all on
when things happen in silence. In silence we see everything
and we say nothing. We witness what happens yet we have no testimony or activism. Our tongues remain motionless
as we watch the worst unfold. So this is the poem Me Too. I am still a little leery when a pastor puts its
hand out to shake mine, when he puts his hands on my shoulder, when his gaze turns past my face and he begins to lick his lips as he encourages me to meet him
for mentoring in his office. Maybe I just have post-traumatic
ratchet pastor disorder. I’m leery like an antelope
when a lion is lying near. Held captive to complicity as
violators re-write the stories of those that survived
their violent crimes. Pastors who pray, then
prey against their flock, only to be forgiven,
move away and prey again. So when I sit down Sunday
morning in the very last pew I say me too, Black church, me too. Because I’ve seen men and
women and children and clergy weighted down by either being silent or looking the there way. By being terrified to tell the truth or by denying the truth. By being manipulated or
helping a manipulator. By lying about the lie that
covered up the last lie that kept it all a secret. So when I go on Sunday morning and I skip Sunday school
just to avoid you, I say me too, Black church, me too. Here behind the stained glass and the opened red doors
with Bibles in hand and hallowed corridors, don’t let him hide behind
that messed up theology or an apology that he spits out to cover his tracks with charisma, whooping in worship that he’s only a man, a man who could not help himself, who should not be held responsible because he knew it was wrong and no, it wasn’t the dress
or the suit that you wore that caused it. Neither God nor him
being wrong stopped him from doing you great harm. So when you stand up on
Sunday morning and walk out you’ve got some healing to do. And I say me too, Black church, me too. Now the last section
that I wanted to discuss is poetry as Black woman’s wisdom. And this is actually a little
lighter than my other topics. My poem, my first poem here
is about a conversation I had with my grandmother. And I used to have five grandmothers but now I only have one and she’s 86. And so this was advice that she gave me. Sitting at the edge of the bed as I often do when I go visit her, I started describing what
happened between me and a woman I had long thought was a friend. But now was suspecting she was an enemy. After listening very attentively she looked into my eyes, tilted her head, looked over the rim of her glasses, and said well, when
someone shows you their ass you better not be sticking
around to smell it. (audience laughs) She sounds like a fool in the fool. I said yes, ma’am, smiling. Yes ma’am. Thank you very much. (audience applauds) – All right, at this time I just wanted to give an opportunity before we open up to the floor, for the panelists to engage each other. Do you have questions for your
colleagues on the panel or… Okay, well let’s open up and, oh, I’m sorry. – If I may, I’m just extremely
grateful for this panel and for the ways that it
opens our ears and our hearts to the drumbeat that calls us to be responsive and to be responsible for the reality in which we live. And I’m grateful for the wisdom of this being called
together and called forth. One matter that I think is
worth further discussion and I hate to offer it and then go. (laughs) – Of course, typical. – But what do we do when our prophets mess up? What do we do with the complexity of our prophets? And I’m so grateful for Alanda, your poetry and your contributions and the ways that you
name the sexual violence that has been a part of our history and a part of our current reality. But also that has been part of some of the others
we’ve named in this space. And so what do we do to hold to what prophetic and what carries us into
a future of liberation? And at the same time
to maintain our dignity and our personhood? How do we continue to press forward in the wisdom of affirming one another in all of who we are in
the beauty and brilliance of she, him, they. In the beauty and brilliance of queer and quair, and all spaces
between here and there. And so this is a question that I think we have to
continue to wrestle with as we deal with the poetics and the policy and figure out how to
unite within and around it given the pluralism of Black religion. – [Eric] Okay. – So I leave the panel with that question. (panel laughs) – Talking about dropping the mic. (panel laughs) I would just say as Jennifer prepares to go to her pastoral commitment and do some more religious
poetry with your people, one thing that does strike me immediately is the importance in our construction of these poetic communities
to emphasize just that. The ethical responsibility of communities. And as I have worked with many, in particular Christian communities, I have often said that so
often if those communities would actually claim their ethical agency, which is often kind of seeded to the messianic, charismatic
figures in the community, but the importance of holding forth a communal ethic accountability that has in it discipline,
and restoration, and accountability as public values, and not simply the lauding of supposedly extraordinary talent and allowing the extraordinary talent to get away with everything
that the community values and holds sacred. So the notion of creating
poetic communities and not just extraordinary poets. – I’m interested in this because when you talk about accountability in creating this community,
the community that I came from, the church environment I grew up in took the Bible literally. It took everything literal. You had to follow the
rule of the doctrine. And in that was included
speak not against my anointed. The pastor, the preachers,
those who had been ordained as the authority and God’s authority, were not to be touched, were
not to be spoken against. And if you saw something
you didn’t say anything. I can tell you and bear
witness to being a survivor of sexual abuse, child sexual abuse of a preacher who had
abused over 130 children in my community. 129 of them were black. And I spoke out but as I spoke out I was ostracized for speaking out. Criticized and judged and your sexuality, oh how could you dare say oh,
I mean, you’re a homosexual. – Uh-huh, uh-huh. – That was a challenge for me. But then when justice came through the form of one white child of those 130 children being abused, that’s when we stared to get results. It took one white child to get
129 black children justice. And that’s a sad testimony,
even to our own community, who could rail an outrage and could decide that hey,
you know what, accountability. You are abusing children and there is no reason
why we should support you or be silent on that matter. We have to speak up. Speak out from silence. And so our spiritual responsibility is first and foremost to make sure that our children are protected. And that we speak up
and we hold accountable and you know this literal translation that’s taking the Bible so
literally as this is God’s word that you can’t touch my anointed. If you’re anointed is causing harm your anointed needs to be dealt with. And I say this, when I was dealing with the
situation I was dealing with, and I went to the bishops of
the particular denomination about it, and they tried to silence
me and I promised them, that I would raise holy hell and that I would spread
far and wide the word about the chronic abuse, systematic abuse that was
going on in that denomination. That denomination has since silent. So you know, accountability. – So for me this is a layered conversation because I was sexually
abused as a child as well. My mother, God bless her, she would send me to work on the weekends at this thrift store that was ran by the local Catholic parish. And you can just imagine
some of the different things I saw there. But the duality to that conversation is also the fact that growing up around Black males that
are in and out of prison, in and out of jail, in and out of juvenal. When they get released
from jail they come home to live in the two family duplex next door to my grandmamma or
next door to my auntie. So the effects of that, even dealing with stuff like that, just growing up and
seeing different brothers approach us as young
brothers in the neighborhood with preditorial vices and you don’t necessarily
really have anybody to go tell that to because I mean who are you gonna tell. So this isn’t a new problem. It’s a problem that’s been treated, it’s being treated as if it’s new because finally people
are starting to speak up. My sister was molested by family members. I knew family members
that molested cousins. So I say this, women aren’t wrong for potentially viewing every single man on planet
earth as a potential predator. And every single man should be treated as a potential predator until proven that you may possible not be. And we’ll never completely
holistically 100% know ’cause we don’t know the
depths of your conscious and the depths of your soul. Only God knows that. But women aren’t wrong
for conducting themselves in a manner that says, hey,
I gotta be on high alert at all times. The same way we want to be on
high alert from White folks, ’cause we go oh, White folks, we gotta treat every White
person like a potential predator. Well women got to treat man
as a potential predator. And I think that we do the conversation an immense amount of justice by bringing that into the dialogue. That’s not sayin’ that
we’re vilifying men, that’s not saying that oh yeah, that’s nothing to be ashamed of as a man. It’s just recognizing
where we realistically are within society and owning that. So I don’t have a grand speil
that leads us to a solution on this problem besides
tell the truth about it. And then also with the religion, y’all gotta understand the difference between a religion and a cult. So the prophet is the prophet. The prophet ain’t God. The prophet makes mistakes. The Bible and the Koran
are filled with prophets that made a mistake. At some point in the
story it gets to the point where the prophet messes something up. And God says you know what, I ran with you for this amount of time. Now it’s time for me
and you to do our bid. You did what I asked you to
do, we’re at a cutoff point. But there’s a difference
between a cult and a religion. A cult, you can’t speak out
against the cult leader. You can’t say anything
negative about the cult leader. You can’t say anything negative about the practices of the cult. I don’t follow a cult. I’m a member of a religion. So the religion has fallacies. The religion has things
that I don’t agree with. The religion was established
hundreds of years ago when patriarchal vices were okay, when child molestation was okay, when sexism was okay, when homophobia was okay. When the only prioritized
member of the religion was the person that had a penis. So if we gonna talk about this stuff, let’s talk about it from
the root of the issue before we jump in and then metamorph
ourselves beyond the point of what’s really goin’ on. – Okay, did you want to go? – I just want to thank my
panelists for their transparency and for sharing their own stories. It’s very difficult for survivors of abuse to share those stories because you relive that trauma
every time you discuss it. I was hesitant to read that poem because I knew how I would react to it. But I think it’s important for
us to begin this discussion in public. I think it’s important for us to begin to express our expectations of safety. I think it’s important
for us to start healing and we cannot do that in silence. We have to be vocal. I also think in some
ways that theologically we need to work through this too. I want to say that, I don’t
want to go on and on about it but I’m glad for the
opportunity to talk about it. I think that when you are whole you are able to do so much more. You are able to be so much
better in your activism, be so much better in your preaching, be so much better in your pastoral care. So I wanted to use this
also as an opportunity to encourage people to pursue self-care, get what you need because
as a person who is wounded, it impacts everything you do. That wound becomes like
a part of your embodiment and unless you let that go it
continues to impact your work. – Right before I open up to the floor I wanna kinda piggyback
off of your last comment about for poets, I want to know what are
your rituals of renewal. What renews you to go back into the fight, to go back and to confront
this culture of death? What renews you? What are your rituals of renewal? – For me, ’cause I’m very much a member of the hip-hop generation and I listen to the same music that everybody else listens to. And I just feel like, it’s all good. I love everything about hip-hop, but there’s room for growth and there’s room for practicality. And I get tired of the so-called
movement related artists only being able to function
in a certain functionality, only being able to talk to
you about kids getting shot, only being able to talk
to you about capitalism, storming the White House, or whatever. So I try to bring, for me I
feel like I was called to be a hybrid mixture of everything. I’m not always mad at life. I’m not always happy. I have so many different human experiences and they deserve to have a
platform to be talked about while also being rooted in the fact that I believe we aren’t free in this land and have never been free. So I’m just tellin’ personal truths. – Some of the things
that I do are mediate. I meditate daily and I also I spend time with nature. I talk to God. I talk to the ancestors. I make sure that I let go
of things that are not mine. (laughs) I identify what is not mine, and I let people keep their stuff. I don’t take it on. So those are some of my… – For me as a poet, my poetry has always been
about cleansing myself of the stuff that’s trapped inside. Getting it out so that I could have room as much inside for creativity as I can. ‘Cause when you got all that noise inside it really gets in the way. But when you can take it out, when you can get those
thoughts out, those issues out, and take a look at them, you
can actually free yourself. And I found that for me as a poet, poetry, I’ve used my poetry
to actually lift myself up out of some dark places. And it just happens that
when I share those things other people connect with them and it helps lift them outta dark places. So I think about what the
creativity that I’ve been given is not mine for myself. It is for me to share, for us to share, and find every part of
who we are connected to it so that we can actually
transform the world. These ideas and these, the
imagination is powerful. And it can change things
in a blink of an eye. And so for me it’s going
in on a regular basis, meditation, and listening. Here’s the last thing, listening. I’ve recently started
this whole focus on prayer and learning how actually that
prayer does not require me to say words. What can I tell God that
God doesn’t already know? So what do I need to do? Is shut up and listen. And that has been such a powerful thing because when I have shut up and listened God has shown me some things
that have changed my life in an instant. So a part of us coming
together in community is perhaps we need to
come together in community where we can be still and know, listen to what divine life has to tell us and then follow that path. And poetry and creativity
is a part of that process. – In terms of theo-poetics, one scholar has suggested that the only appropriate
rhetorical figure when talking about God and
the future God wants to create is hyperbole. To be a poet is to exercise
the gift of hyperbole. To avoid what one
homiletician, Henry Mitchell, called the heresy of exactness. So when you live in public spaces and your energy in the world
requires hyperbolic expression to in some sense at least
approximate what God is up to, the only appropriate recovery for me in that hyperbolic state is
massive doses of solitude. And to have created with
those who are closest to me. An appreciation that
that is not detachment. That is actually an
investment in wellness. I once heard a rhetorical poet, one of the finest preachers
that I knew who was a mentor. And he would say to me
after two, sometimes three, poetic excursions on a Sunday. He would say Brad, sometimes I don’t get physically
right again until Thursday. (panelists softly hum) And some of us who live in
these expressions, right, these cultural moments that
make room for the hyperbolic, we must also make room
for the deep retreat into restoring solitude. – Thank you so much. In the 21 minutes that remain, there to my right and to my
left, there’re microphones. If you have questions
please bring them now. – Good morning!
– Good morning. – [Audience Member] Thank
you so much for a robust and empowering presentation this morning. I have a question about pedology. I heard Doctor Braxton speak
explicitly about pedology and then Tef Poe, I heard
you offer a critique of it, our educational system and essentially not selling
students a bill of goods. I work primarily with
first-generation college students at a small HBCU in Jackson, Tennessee and so I’m constantly wrestling with how do I engage my students and teach them critical consciousness when most of them come from trauma and are focused on survival. And so I would love to hear from the panel just what it means, or
what does it look like, to teach critical consciousness
to marginalized students when really even when they’re at school survival is often top of mind. Or honestly if they have
been caring for their family since they were 12, when they come to me at 18
they’re just really happy that there’s a roof over their heads and it’s not their primary job to provide for their family immediately, but their mind is often still back home. So any insights you have in terms of pedagogical strategies and
practices would be welcome. – That’s a great question. And I’ll try to answer it with a little bit of
personal storytelling. So my life has not been a life of ease. I come from a very poor family. My mother was the primary breadwinner even though we had, she had my stepfather who raised me since I was one. But he came from a life of selling drugs, being in the streets,
to being a family man, working at factory jobs in the Midwest. The factories leave and then he’s struggling
to find employment for most of my life. So my mother was really the
only educated parent I had so she pretty much sustained our family. She had a heart attack at the age of 35. She was working crazy. And at that time we were children so we didn’t really
understand exactly how hard she was actually working. And for years I felt that I had a artistic calling on my life but I was raised in a Pentecostal family. A very, very strict Pentecostal family. My mother wasn’t as strict
about the religious vices as my father was, but still she would be in support of him ’cause he was her husband. So I left my home at like 17 years old. It created a rift between
me and my parents. And so a lot of people, they
go, they discover the streets, and then they discover art. I discovered art, then I
discovered the streets. ‘Cause I wanted to make art but the only place that I
could go to express myself without being judged was the streets. So one thing leads to another,
and another, and another, that the same ritual of
the dead family members, people dying, people getting killed, me feeling that I’m blessed to be alive. And then I wake up one day
and I’m at Harvard University. I got tattoos all over my body. A couple of those are dead
family members, dead friends and I’m carryin’ these people,
in my mind, to these places. And I started to have a
bit of survivor’s guilt. And it tore me apart. It really ripped me apart. And a lot of people don’t understand that for Black folks in this country you are marginalized at the bottom because there’s no access to resources and there’s no access to being
able to be your complete self and then when you finally
make it out of that bottom and you get to a good position, you’re still marginalized
because the people who you love aren’t there with you and can’t partake in those experiences. So I believe what has worked for me, and I constantly struggle with it, but what has worked, I
work with a lot of kids from the same circumstances and I always encourage them to understand that it’s okay to be different,
and it’s okay to be unique, and it’s okay to lean into
those unique qualities about yourself. Because when it come to
you this is the only space that they may have to
really be adventurous with those unique qualities. Outside of that, they’re
gonna go into a world that says you have to function in a very mechanical, stiff manner. Even as a grown man that got
involved in the Black movement there were people that chastised
me because I was a rapper. There were folks that
told me oh, you rappin’, you’re doin’ this for this. I’m like I deal with
predatory police some more than y’all will ever know
about predatory policing. So I think that expressin’
to these children, and I’m not just speaking, ’cause a lot of times when
people speak about this they’re only speakin’ about
the little boys a lot of times, not realizing that the little girls are going through quadruple that. They’re being sexualized, they’re seeing images of one type of thing and then being told that
in order to be successful you gotta go through this route. With boys it’s not quite that narrow. Even though it is narrow it’s not as narrow as it is for the girls. So just be in the place of
the positive for these kids and being, showcasing your
duality as a person as well that way where you can
care about these things but you also, you’re just a human. I think that goes a long way. – In terms of pedology, there are two things that
immediately come to my mind. And the first is
unfortunately in the guild we continue to lift as the union card subject matter competence
without also insisting that we as classroom teachers
have soul competence. To actually be the steward of another person’s heart and mind and personhood and intellect, for 50 minutes three times a week, or 75 minutes twice a week,
or three hours once a week, or whatever it might be,
that is priestly work. So in the example that I used
when Eric and I were teaching on that first day, I mean
literally the cosmos broke open. It was just, the energy was just pulsating because the ancestors has visited and yet the ancestors gave us wisdom that there was a moment
that we gathered ourselves, and Eric will perhaps remember, that once we gathered I asked the question that I ask probably six times a seminar, and maybe three, or
four, or five dozen times in the semester. It’s a question I always ask
students and it’s simply this, how is your soul today. (panelists hum softly) – Wow! – I mean it was tackle
football in there sometimes with the kinda theoretical
contestations that were going on and when there would be critique, whether it was a critique
someone was offering to another colleague or I was
offering or Eric was offering, we would literally ask the question did we handle this moment
with appropriate care. (panelists hum softly) Right, we’re always this hard-driving, this competence, this technical mastery. Great, fine, we’re scholars, we get it! But we are tending souls. So soul competence, number one, must always be a part of
our pedagogical practice. The second thing I will share,
and this came literally, and this really speaks
to the embodiment issue that you raised, this comes out of the
thankful place where I am now having gone through a very serious and life-altering battle with skin cancer. I’m very much on the
other side and I’m healed but I had some very skilled
and candid physicians who walked me and my
family through that battle. And I remember after
a very serious surgery that finally eradicated, and it was a pretty significant wound. When an oncologist who’s
done this many times says to you that’s an intimidating
wound, that was a moment. And I had to make peace with the wound. And the wound was doing
some strange things one day and it made me nervous. There was this serous-like
fluid coming off of my wounds and immediately when you’ve gone through these serious brushes with
death you begin to think. I’m like did they not
get it, what’s going on? And the surgeon with
amazing bedside manner set my soul free when he said wounds have to weep in order to heal. (panelists hum softly) In our classrooms, do we give
our students and their wounds permission to weep? Not to explain it away, but
to be there with enough galls and compassion to let that
wound do what it has to until healing finally comes. – Well then.
– I just have a few words. I work in a I would say, I’ve worked in a HBCU before and right now I’m working
in a community college so I can kind of imagine the
type of students you have. So my first suggestion would be that you need to work out
of multiple intelligences. That is to say give them as
many different ways to learn as possible. Also within that I would
say start where they are. So for example, if have
research papers or whatever, let them identify the group of people that they’re interested in, and what type of problems they might solve for that group of people. So that would be a high
interest thing for them. Also I would suggest that
you send them to the library ’cause as student who go to
the library perform better. What else? And be flexible. You know, I’m also, my
mother was a single parent and my father was a Vietnam vet who didn’t adjust well to civilian life. So when I went to school I worked two jobs and I had professors who were flexible who understood that I was
working my way through school and they gave instead of, I mean there are times
when you need to be rigid and times when you need to give grace. And you need to know which is which. So that’s my… – Okay, we have one more question. – [Audience Member] All right. I have a couple of questions. One, for Doctor Braxton and one for Tef Poe, former
student of Doctor Braxton. And my doctoral student,
Bridy, here is with us, so we teach together at the
University of Louisville so you all teach together. My question is I’m, as
your former student, I’m always amazed by your pedology but what you were describing
at Harvard is particular. Right, they may have had a manifestation that didn’t happen at
Vanderbilt quite in that way. But I’m wondering, I teach at a public university, right? In a religion department
in a public university, often-time with first generation
kids and so on and so forth who need that kind of
pedagogical experience I think. But I’m wondering how you
imagine that in that context, ’cause you were in a
divinity school after all, all be it Harvard, right?
– Yes, yes. – [Audience Member] You
were in a divinity school and so I’m wondering how you would imagine that pedagogical practice
within a public university. And then with Tef Poe, I was fascinated when
you said I feel called to be a kind of hybrid
of all of these things as a sense of calling. Whether that’s artist and activist, whether that’s hip-hop and
conscious hip-hop and ratchet. Whether that’s Christian and
Muslim as I’m hearing, right? So how have you been
able to show up in space bringing your whole hybrid self, right? And what has that meant for you, particularly have you been able to show up in religious community with
that whole hybrid self? And if so, how has that been received and what do you think they
may have gained from that? – Thank you for that wonderful opportunity to think about how you turn the diamond in various pedagogical settings. I think my first response
is in any setting, even in a public university setting, you have an opportunity to
invite your students into what, let’s say Ellison and
others might call the deeper or the lower frequencies. So there’s a way to frame this with kind of humanistic language that is still getting at what religious communities are getting at when they’re much more explicit, is that element of spirit. That element that often is not tangible that gives a certain
pulse and drive to life. So that I have literally
done the same thing, again it was a different,
it was a private university, but I taught at Georgetown in
an arts and science experience and we literally did the
same thing every morning to the place where the students said even if the transcendental claims that may be underneath
some of what you’re singing don’t meet me, what you do is changing the energy and it’s tapping something lower in me that needs to be tapped. So I think there’s a humanistic way that that can be framed that doesn’t always have
the theological freight that sometimes can make
things complicated politically in our settings but still get to the core there is more to this
than simply meets the eye. And the great moral and
religious traditions have always tried to burrow
down to that lower frequency. – Man, I’d listen to Doctor
Braxton talk all day, man. (audience laughs) Gotta truth man. So I think a lot of the
way I approach my work actually comes from livin’ in poverty, seeing so many of my friends
who would have benefited from developing a little bit
more nuance to their lifestyle and the lack of that development
and what it meant for them. It meant going to prison,
it meant dying prematurely, it meant not experiencing
like a healthy relationship with their partner. It meant so many different caveated things that the greatest teacher that
I’ve experienced in my life even though I’m young is experience. And the greatest lesson that I learned coming out of the Furguson uprising, you hear a lot of folk talk about Furguson but what was actually
going on on the ground and versus the academic
intellectual analysis, two different, totally different things. So when you’re on a corner with 250 people and there’s an entire police force with MRAPs and M-16s aimed at you, it’s very easy for your
ego to go through the roof when you the person that
moved those 250 people off that corner. So controlling my ego has
been the greatest gift God ever gave me, and I
still struggle with that because I go places and people
go oh, Tef, you the anomaly, and I’m like let’s chill ’cause I gotta go use
the bathroom like you do. (panelists laugh) I grew up Christian and I recently converted
to Islam even though… Even for me but still even within that, that’s a lot of nuance. Part of the motivation
for me to start studying the Islamic text more was I
wasn’t seeing enough nuance in the Christian practices, at least of the churches
and the communities that I was a member of. And the reason I say that
is I didn’t feel prideful when I saw Barack Obama
singing Amazing Grace after a Black church got shot up. I felt defeated. I didn’t feel great about that. So like a lot of people celebrated that as like oh my God,
we’re still so merciful, we’re still so compassionate. At that point I wanted a real verbatim what are we going to do. They’re killing our elders
in a place of worship. And what did it for me was I said I gotta do something different is when I realized that a lot
of these White Supremacists were also so-called Christians. So you mean to tell me the Black folk that they shot up in the church, and the person that
shot ’em in the church, are gonna go to the
same place in paradise? I just couldn’t negotiate that. So I said I gotta do something different. Even though I still very
much believe in the teachings of Christ as a prophet, and even as a messiah in some instances, for me in my personal life I
had to deposit that energy, do something different. And it’s sort of how Vincent was saying, the prayer, the silence, and the tranquility of
just saying you know what, I don’t have all the answers. I’m just gonna put
myself out here as a tool and allow myself to be used. So I’m gonna close it,
’cause I know I talk a lot. But for me just understanding
that nuance of you as a human and that nothing flows one way. And unfortunately we have
these grand historical examples of folks that were very,
very, very, very, very, very, very nuanced individuals, but publicly they weren’t
allowed to be that. Like somebody like Michael Jackson. When you really look into his real life, he was speaking up for Black
artists his whole life. But do we really even know that about Michael Jackson publicly or do we just equate him to the guy that got up here and danced, did a couple of back-flips
and that was that? Somebody like Martin Luther
King, who was a gun owner, who when a reporter came to his house the reporter sat on a loveseat,
sat on a loaded 12 gauge. Right? Somebody like, I could go on and on. There’s just so many different examples of these nuanced Black individuals that we don’t fully explore that. And what I made a commitment
to myself as a Black man is that I’m not gonna let this
world rob me of that nuance. I’m not gonna let you all tell me that I gotta be a gangster,
I gotta be a rapper, I got to be a revolutionary, I can’t be this, I can’t be that. I’m all that unfortunately,
slash fortunately. – My brothers and sisters, we have had an amazing time today. I think we should give
our panelists a hand. (applauding)

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