Brothas & sistas, hoteps & woke millenials… negroes of the necropolis: welcome to The Ellisonian Basement. Here is where I talk all things blackness and (in)visibility from the personal to the political. From anxiety to activism, oppression to depression, systemic analysis of symptoms of paralysis with some global worldviews sprinkled in for good measure (…hey Bahia… what up Trinidad… what it do Cuba…). Which is to say I’m a traveler when my full time teacher gig allows so some of this will feel like a travel blog through an Africentric, social justice lens. But I’m first and foremost a poet so expect me to get in my emo ass feelings or offer a snippet from my books Sleeper Cell or Blind Visionz from time to time. Lastly, I’m an activist when my passions push me past the margins so you can expect some frontline reporting as well, most specifically from the battlefields of the #TakeEmDownNOLA movement, which I co-founded here in New Orleans three years ago this July.
The seed of this Ellisonian journey started most directly with my 8th grade teacher Mrs. K. A few years after I’d been kicked out of my first high school in New Orleans, as a young, culture shocked Brooklyn boy turned New Orleans juvenile delinquent, she and I reconnected when I was 17 years old. It was then that I went on a life-changing trip called the Civil Rights Magic Bus Tour led by historian Douglas Brinkley. On that trip, Mrs. K gifted me with a copy of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I could do a whole separate entry on how this book would affect my psyche in the years that followed. For now, suffice it to say that between the Battle Royale that reminded me of the black on black male violence that riddled my youth to the trials of the nameless protagonist who bounces off of societal construct after societal construct throughout his 581 page journey, never finding a place that he can totally identify with as a black man in America, but instead (oft reactionary) models of being that limit his humanity, I found myself in that book. (Which is to say I found myself in a lost black man trying to find himself.) The book diagnosed my past and mirrored the future that I would inhabit from my college days till now.
Books can be prophetic like that. Life can be prone to imitate art like that. But I’d like to think that old Ralph, transcendentalist that he was, named after the originator of the philosophy, Ralph Waldo Emerson, was able to, like Emerson’s fellow space cadet poet Walt Whitman, envision the whole forest of reality in the few leaves of grass that were Invisible Man. To see the oceanic malady of modernity in the sand grains of his time. So when some 80 years later, we still have to scream “Black Lives Matter” on megaphones and in mass media only to have that cry erased and replaced by “All Lives Matter,” I think of the nameless protagonist in Invisible Man, whose identity was smudged into oblivion by every form of oppressive conformity Western society has pressed up against black bodies since its inception.
I see him at the Communist rally, the overzealous leader’s eyeball popping out as he extols our protagonist for not sticking to the Communist script. And I think of all the white liberal so-called allies at work and elsewhere that have tried to erase me over the years, or the anarchist kids that jeopardized me and other black people with their recklessness at social justice marches. I see our nameless protagonist dodging ‘the exhorter’ (who I always read as an archetype of a Garveyite or some sort of black nationalist) as he tries to escape his rigid prescription of militaristic blackness. And I think of how prescient that narrative was to the now silent civil war between black millenials and so-called hoteps. I think of how I feel almost equally allegiant to and critical of both sides, and somewhat invisible to both. I could go on and on. But suffice it to say, that boy Ralph got me. Like, for real like. *6th ward Dumaine nasal voice* Like holy black messianic prophesy black man. You gave me my whole life at like 17 years old. Thank you my G.
At the end of the book — spoiler ALERT — after fleeing the riots in the streets, our nameless protagonist ends up in a basement apartment, isolated and alone, with no company but some 1,000 light bulbs that he powers with energy he’s siphoned from the major power company in town. He stares up at the sea of light and in it, sees an abstract glimmer of hope, some semblance of freedom. Maybe he mistakes those lights for stars. Maybe he’s gone mad. Maybe he’s making escape route of what little he has left at his disposal. And if that ain’t black (magic) I don’t know what is. I’m staring into a liquid crystal display screen as I write this. It’s my own sea of glowing possibility, but in this case an innumerable amount of pixels reflecting polarized light. Unlike my invisible mans and ‘em, this light is a real portal… to the world (wide web)… to you. Ahh… the amenities of modernity. Though I may feel as isolated as Ralph’s protagonist at times, I — like so many of you out there that have used this platform as a conduit, a bridge — have an opportunity to connect… beyond all this world has used to divide us.
In the last few years, I gathered up much of the angst, rage and passion of my youth and fashioned them into a different choice of weapons than the ones that landed me in jail as a juvenile. Much like the nameless protagonist in Ralph’s classic, I have availed myself to the world of political activism. I have grown profusely by way of it. I’ve also been deeply challenged and traumatized by it. Which is ironic. I got into activism when I found poetry’s ability to heal limited at the margins of the page, or the oft fleeting conversations after the reading. Which is to say I got into activism to deepen the healing and in turn, received more wounds. So here is the place where I mend wounds new and old as I hash out some of the lessons they’ve offered me. From an investigation of blackness and fear via the time I went to jail for attempted murder at 14, to the time I went to Trinidad & Tobago to deliver a keynote speech on removing white supremacist monuments in New Orleans, to the time I confronted the mayor of my city for co-optating the work of black activists (next entry). If you’ve followed any of the work I’ve done over the past few years, then welcome to a journey through the inner workings of its DNA. I hope you’ll join me.
Maybe you’ll find it true what Ralph said, “who knows but that on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”