Over the past week I have been overwhelmed with feelings of frustration, inspiration and fury over the situation in Baltimore and the plight of Black folk across America.
I have had to avoid social media. My news feed is a cesspool – a toxic mix of ill-informed political punditry, videos of Black bodies being bludgeoned by the state, and protests of young brothers and sisters tired of having their humanity denied.
In stark contrast to mayhem, last week I was bombarded with advertisements for the Pacquiao/Mayweather fight and the latest “Avengers” movie. Aware that I’m a big comic book fan, several of my friends invited me to see “Avengers: Age of Ultron” – but I had mixed feelings. How could I indulge in escapism while my brothers and sisters were hitting the streets? Shouldn’t I be standing in solidarity – creating solutions with my people, or pouring out libations for the slain?
My brother MK Asante, a professor at Morgan State in Baltimore, offered me some encouraging words that helped lift me out of my helplessness: “Creation is the best form of critique.”
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On the morning of May 1, with MK’s words on my conscience, I helped create a beautiful and scathing critique with my hip hop and jazz band The Beast, and the children of Lakewood Montessori Middle School on Chapel Hill Road. The Beast conducted a workshop called Sankofa about the history of resistance in Black music.
In the old YMCA gym, where I used to play soccer during the summers with my former teammate, and current band-mate Stephen Coffman, I sang spirituals and talked about how enslaved Africans used music to emancipate themselves. We talked about the blues, played jazz, and sang Bob Marley to show the connections between those genres and hip hop. The set ended with a political song called Freedom, which –though it was written in 2008 – calls Baltimore by name: “They call Baltimore BODY-more, Philadelphia is KILL-a-delphia, so what the F--- we dying for?!” (Obviously, I censored the profanity for the middle- school audience, but it felt refreshing to express the sentiment, nonetheless.)
At the conclusion of the workshop, Lakewood’s student-symphony and big band joined us onstage for renditions of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and an original song by The Beast called “My People.” The strings and horns swooned underneath refreshingly political lyrics. Speaking on my late grandmother, Queen Mother Frances Pierce, who moved to Durham for the last years of her life before passing away in 2012, I belted “when segregation was law she (Queen Mother) found the flaw, and hit the streets until her knuckles was raw.” The crowed cheered as I continued, “Lesbian, gay, transgender, strait, bi – this is for my people who don’t ever have to hide … stand up tall against obstacles with fists raised and flared nostrils until we get what we came here for!”
To sing these lyrics in the gym where I learned to sink my first layup was invigorating – particularly at a time when I was feeling devastated by the plight My People currently face in this country, on this planet, and in the city of Durham.
I left Lakewood energized, and famished. I had about an hour to kill before I needed to pick my daughter up from Martha’s House (neighborhood care), and decided to grab a bite at Monuts Donuts, which was right down the street. Feeling very nostalgic from my experience at Lakewood, I walked right into another blast from the past. Monuts is right across the street from my childhood elementary school, E.K. Powe, and when I walked into the restaurant, I was faced with a huge brown rabbit in red overalls.
I immediately recognized the rabbit as the maitre d’ of Wellspring — the original locally owned organic grocery store, before Whole Foods set up shop in Durham. It was like seeing an old friend. I gave her a hug, then noticed – though the restaurant was completely packed – me and the rabbit were the only non-white humanoids in the room. I whipped out my laptop and began writing this article (while simultaneously scarfing down a slice of roasted red pepper quiche and a strawberry shortcake donut).
Right then, I decided that I would go see “Avengers” that night, but I would disrupt the space by performing political poetry at the water fountain outside the AMC Theatres. I had written a political spoken word piece about leader of the Avengers, titled “Captain America.” The poem is a critique on police brutality and the mass incarceration of Black men across America. This was how I would deal with my feelings of contradiction and frustration – in a cathartic, poetic rant.
I was so excited by the idea, I felt the urge to perform the poem at Monuts. I stood up in my chair and caught an affirming glimpse from my old friend, who was smirking at me with a huge carrot slung over her shoulder ... and just then, I remembered that I had to pick up my daughter from school.
(UPDATE: On Saturday, I learned there had been a march in Durham on May 1, which flew under my radar. While avoiding social media, I actually missed the call to action, and an opportunity to stand in solidarity with my fellow Durhamites. #smh #fail)
You can reach Pierce Freelon at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @Durhamite.