race, Reading, Reading Beyond, Writing

Reading Beyond: Asali Solomon

Solomon Disgruntled

Disgruntled, Asali Solomon (2015)

Kenya Curtis is growing up in 1970’s Philadelphia with a dad who wants to seed a revolution and a mom who’s working to pay the rent. Her living room is the gathering place for the Seven Days, a collection of tired but dedicated survivors of the Civil Rights movement, fending of complacence and creeping towards middle age. Because she is the kid that celebrates Kwanzaa and can’t eat pepperoni pizza because of the pork, school is a place of derision that borders on shunning.

Continue reading “Reading Beyond: Asali Solomon”

Reading

Raft of Books

ship book

First I picked up the books. Then the books carried me. The past several months have tried to push my head under. I could barely trust my own breath. So I read. Some came recommended. Mostly I stumbled and grabbed. Books by authors of color, books about the dangerous future. If the book didn’t buoy me, it went back in the library bag and the next one had its shot.

Dozens of authors worked their magic craft, quieting the inner cacophony. They nudged me across the churning waters into places where everyone speaks in a voice other than my own.

Continue reading “Raft of Books”

Purpose, Reading

King and Queen

Mahalia

The trick is to tell him the dog can stay in bed with us for the first book. We settle down in the nest of pillows and blankets. Poor, long-suffering Noodle is crammed into my boy’s insistent grasp.

We begin with Mahalia Jackson: Walking with Kings and Queens. The illustrations are rich and the story simple enough.

Simple does not always mean comfortable.

Bug listens and the dog drifts into a warm stupor.

Ms. Jackson left school in 4th grade to take care of her baby cousins and only returned when she was 16 and living in Chicago. She soon had to quit yet again to work as a maid and a laundress. Through all this, she sang in churches, she lifted congregants to their feet. People joined because her voice called to them.

When we finish the book, Bug asks, “What is gospel?”

I give him the barest definition then search up a video on my phone. There she is, young and vivid, her voice weaving in and over a gathered crowd’s soulful noise. She vibrates, filled with light and bright as the sun. The hall is an unnamed church. It is crammed with people, white and black both. At the lectern on the other side of the room, Martin Luther King, Jr. waits with a patient smile.

Bug knows that face, of course. From his first years, King’s image and his words have           stood with those of the founding fathers and the flag to which he pledges allegiance.  They are basic building blocks in the canon of his education. For him, “I Have Dream” is a prayer both fixed and abstract existing in another time and context. King is prophet from first introduction, forever commanding an elevated position above a faceless crowd.

Now, on my tiny screen, the man, real and revenant, young again. The camera pans from Ms. Jackson’s crackling energy to Dr. King’s measured calm. Heads bop in and out of the frame. My son is transfixed. On the jumpy, amateur film, King steadies himself and seems almost uncertain where to fix his gaze. The force drawing people into jubilation is not him but this woman who opens her voice, this surge of power in song.

Bug is up on his elbows, staring with wide eyes into the screen. “Who is that?” he asks.

“That’s her,” I say. “That’s Mahalia Jackson. This is during the civil rights movement.”

Usually when we do what Bug calls “learny things,” he is more than willing to roll his eyes and tell me how boring it all is. He endures until we can get back to the fun stuff, to Rick Riordan and teen demigods doing battle with gorgons.

For this moment, Poseidon waits. Bug watches, immersed. The camera turns to the room as the song quiets. Young folks and old, black folks and white, faces alive on the long-ago film. They are crammed in together, expectant, ready to step through the door one voice has throw open.


Image from Reed Magazine

 

 

Change, Purpose, Reading

Book a Ride

A public library is the most democratic thing in the world. What can be found there has undone dictators and tyrants: demagogues can persecute writers and tell them what to write as much as they like, but they cannot vanish what has been written in the past, though they try often enough…People who love literature have at least part of their minds immune from indoctrination.


– Doris Lessing

I forgo my usual lunchtime inertia and go for a walk instead. It helps that the sun is peeking out today. It helps that I decided to quit bitching and do something about my stalled commitment.

This walk is no stroll across campus. I’m on a mission.

The downtown library is 1.5 miles from my office. My empty shopping bag flops against my side as I pass the fire station and the Thai restaurant. The library door is narrow but opens into a space as capacious as an easy chair. Preschoolers chatter. Glass up to the ceiling lets the day drift in and wander.

The stacks seem to lean ever so slightly in my direction, meeting my momentum. I weave first through  biographies and then head to the 323s.

The collection I slide through the scanner includes Sylvia Mendez, Mahalia Jackson, Sun Ra. Picture books, bright covers, gritty stories that betray a hidden gleam. Into the bag. Cesar Chavez. A walk up Lincoln’s steps. Elizabeth Cady Stanton catches a lift. So does Toussaint Louverture.

Reading does not equal action. Reading does build the momentum towards it. It opens the hood. It invites a look inside.

I hike the same 1.5 miles back to my office. An afternoon of spreadsheets and graduation planning is waiting.

Sun warms my face. The overstuffed bag presses into my shoulder. It is uphill all the way but the climb feels like something else entirely. Like a neglected engine when it finally hums awake. Like when a latch pops and the light streams in.


 

 

Parenting, Purpose, Reading

Tug of War

Talk About Race

The mother with a son Bug’s age tells me she wants to raise her child colorblind. She is white, her boy Latino. She says our children will be able to grow up without racism. She says in her family, they choose not to point out differences.

My voice stumbles before overreaching. We’re both on our way somewhere. In this fleeting conversation, I say too much and not enough.

It’s a mistake for well-meaning white liberal parents to avoid conversations about race and bias. Racism is happening. It is grown right into the structures that govern our lives. What good do we do if we fail to give our kids a vocabulary for understanding it, for talking about it? For changing it?  Continue reading “Tug of War”

Family, Home, Reading

We Call Home

My boy is sad today. He can’t, or won’t, tell me why. He lets me put my arm around him as we walk to the car. “What should we do tonight?” I ask. It is the middle of the week. He has given up (mostly) on asking to play games on his tablet.

“I don’t know.” He climbs into the back seat. We lurch along route 123, Taylor Swift matching the pulse of brake lights.

At home, he kicks off his shoes and heads to the couch. He bunches the blue blanket up around his legs. “Do we have any books in this house?” he asks.

This house? Framed in spines, insulated in ink? He must be blind to the floor under his feet. I carry a stack from his room. He opens Toot and Puddle and pulls the blanket up over his lap.

It’s cold enough for a fire. The wood I bought is piled halfway up the wall. The family who split and sold it called it seasoned. The pop and spit of our first fire suggested otherwise. It doesn’t matter. I build a tipi of logs, tucking into its folds a handful of sticks collected from walks around the neighborhood. We have no forest here. Shrubs and maples dot the path that crosses the park and weaves around the AT&T complex. After gusty nights, I gather kindling, cracking limbs across my knee. Cars hum past on their way to the interstate, mothers push their babies in swings. Like a latter-day homesteader, I wobble through the warren of townhouses and condos, bending low to add another purple-gray branch to the bundle spilling from my arms.

Damper open, wind hums down through the cold throat of the flue. I roll up leaves of the Sunday sports section to help things along. With a crackle and low groan, the pulped, broken trees burn back to life.

I should start dinner. From the couch across the room, clunk, flip, flip, clunk. Bug skims then discards. After a few moments, silence. With the iron poker, I press a knot of classifieds under the grate. The ends of the branches flame to orange, blacken, curl. Log grains catch.

These things we call fallen, they burn.

I feel him next to me. I pad to my room and drag the turquoise fleece cushion from my bed out to the warm floor. Our Christmas tree, fatter than it has any right to be, twinkles purple, green, blue. I click on the tea kettle. Bug has carried over three books. A graphic novel, a Magic School Bus, a re-take on The Nutcracker. He leans against me.

“Hey buddy. Do you want me to read to you?”

“No, I just want to be close.” He sprawls on the cushion, face on my leg. Popping embers. Rising steam. The water is ready but I’m not. In the orange glow, he turns pages.

The heat works its way down to my sternum. Into my bones. This is what it is to unfurl. It is drinking light. We’re a year and a half in, and still, I marvel. We actually made it here, to this spot on this golden bamboo floor in our own home. Half a decade ago, I couldn’t even fathom what we’ve now mastered. My boy learned to ride a bike this year. He can already stand in the saddle, legs pumping to climb the big hill to Bob Evans. He can sink a shot from the foul line. Draw zombie comics. Approximate the square root of 11. Make breakfast burritos on the stove from scratch.

My boy can read. Beyond making sense from syntax, he can really read. On a Thursday evening in January – now or 2035 – he opens a book and finds tucked into its pages a nest made just for him.

Bug sighs and turns to look up at me. “Can we have extra reading tonight?”

“Of course, baby.” Stories fill our corners, swathe our sofa, clutter our coffee table, carpet our floor. Stories, ours, all of them. The ones we read.

The one we write.

These things we call buried, they thrive.