Monday, July 13, 2020

I Don't Believe You When You Say "Blank Lives Matter"

A primer for the anti-racist teaching unit Ironically, All Lives Matter

Asynchronous Pre-work -Video to Frame Lesson (15 min.):
Lil Baby, The Bigger Picture” (4:16) 

Link -

Lyrics -


Chorus: “It’s bigger than Black and white/there’s a problem with the whole way of life/ It can’t change overnight/ but we gotta start somewhere…”


·      Share the chorus lyrics as a teaser. 

·      Have students watch the above video and read the lyrics on their own prior to the synchronous session. 

·      Advise that there is strong language and that they should listen using headphones if possible. 

·      Tell students that after watching the video, they should find the following comment by “JT” posted on 7/9/20 

·      Have students read the comment and read through the replies (37 at last count on 7/12/20) – Here is a portion of JT’s comment:  “For everyone saying or trying to correct and saying “all lives matter” you are not explicitly racist...You’re just ignorant. BLM is not intended to say that black lives matter more than all others. It’s implying that there is an imbalance and once that is corrected then all lives will show to matter….”


Contemporary Connection (synchronous):  

Read and discuss the following framing essay (30-45 minutes)


I don’t believe you when you say ‘______ Lives Matter’

By Michael Otieno Molina, teacher and author of Jim Huckleberry


Irony abounds in contemporary conflicts around race. Take the Black lives matter – alllives matter debate. “Black lives matter” is a clear and direct assertion that Black lives should matter as much as any life. That some attempt to contradict “Black Lives Matter” by saying “All Lives Matter” is AP English textbook irony. “All lives matter” cannot be a true statement unless “Black lives matter” is a true statement. So why would people say “all lives matter” to undermine the fact that all lives matter? Ironic, don’t you think?


·     Check for Understanding:  How do people use the word “ironic” in everyday conversation? Think of an example of people using the word “ironic” in colloquial speech and then Google Race[1]to find a good definition of how “verbal irony” is used in literature. Distinguish between the two. (5 min.)

o  Here is a relatively clear definition of irony – when the intended meaning of words contradict the surface meaning expressed by those words. Think sarcasm.

o  Here is a description of how verbal irony is used in literature from Encyclopedia Brittanica, “Irony has often been used to emphasize the multilayered contradictory nature of modern experience. For instance, in Toni Morrison’s novel Sula (1973), the [Black] community lives in a neighbourhood called the Bottom, located in the hills above a largely white town.” 


Using “All Lives Matter” as an attempt to contradict the statement “Black Lives Matter” is an ironic block to common understanding. Rather than get into the head-heavy black hole of rhetoric to try to prove that people aren’t saying what they mean when they say “all lives matter” or “Black lives matter” for that matter, we should start at the heart of it all. That’s where the deeper challenge lies, where emotional triggers stifle mutual understanding and the progress that could come from it. 


·      Anti-Racism Pro-tip:  Make room for the heart-space in order to allow for awareness of emotional responses. Be open to subjective experience. Be generous when people use imprecise language. Be quiet. Listen. Breathe. Listen more, and ask clarifying questions. 


Here’s a completely subjective opinion:  As a Black man, I don’t believe that people who say “All Lives Matter” mean it. I feel that people say “All Lives Matter” just to shut down discussion of whether Black people’s lives matter as much as other people’s lives in America. Some part of me doesn’t believe people who say “Black Lives Matter” either. If Black lives matter, how can we be okay with so many Black people in poverty or economic anxiety, in perpetual health danger, imprisoned, or academically under-resourced at such disproportionate rates? The supposed conflict between these two statements ultimately feels like a distraction and a deliberate attempt to undermine common understanding and collective action.


·      Mindful Think Time:  What are you feeling or thinking in response to this perspective? Do you agree, disagree, “agree to disagree”? What might be a contrasting perspective? How might you make space for my perspective and a contrasting perspective? (3 min.)


Mark Twain fans will not be surprised that his particular brand of anti-racism can help us out of the funk of this contemporary conflict around race. Twain critics will not be surprised that his racist characterization of Jim in Adventures of Huckleberry Finnreaffirmed the dehumanization of Black life during post-reconstruction America, a historical period when America may have needed Twain at his most directly anti-racist. As a Twain fan and critic, I’ve learned that reading Huck Finnfor anti-racism, analyzing Huck Finnfor anti-racism, and responding to Huck Finnwith anti-racist creative expression can build a bridge—a base, a rise, and a landing—between people who say “Black Lives Matter” and those who say “All Lives Matter”. The hope for this unit is that this bridge might lead to action to make both statements true.


Thought Questions – Take some time to consider (5 min.):

·      What circumstances do you think people are responding to when they use the slogans “Black Lives Matter” or “All Lives Matter”?

·      What do you think people mean when they make these statements? 

·      What unspoken assumptions might help us understand what people mean when they make these statements? 

·      How might both of these statements be examples of verbal irony?


Learning about verbal irony helps us understand how to apply literature study in daily life. If we ever hope to decode the Rubik’s Cube of race relations, understanding verbal irony is a good start. Mark Twain can be helpful here. Verbal irony was Twain’s most potent tool in critiquing aspects of American society that still need critique today. 


In the three lesson anti-racist unit Ironically, All Lives Matter, we engage an excerpt from Huck Finnand one from Jim Huckleberry, a new work of American fiction that contrasts and connects with Twain’s most famous work. Verbal irony is at the core of Twain’s work. For generations, we have taught Twain and, likely, missed some of the point. For at least one generation, hip English teachershave either challenged the following song for its frustrating misuse of the notion of irony or praised it for exhibiting irony to perfection. Take a listen and judge for yourself if it’s ironic or not, and to get ready for the complex and contradictory world of Twain.


Closing Connection:Isn’t it Ironic, by Alanis Morrisette

Lyrics -

[1]I challenge students to use Google to find a good source of helpful information for answering a question as quickly as possible.  The first student with a good source “wins”. You can create a currency for wins, but the point is to ensure a good source for helpful information. Give the parameters for a good source before the race starts.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Tear Down Twain? The Literary Monument that is Huck Finn

Rockwell's The Problem We All Live With
Norman Rockwell's artistic work The Problem We All Live With (1964, pictured left) was one of that iconic White American artist's depictions of the racism in his day. A determined Ruby Bridges, the real life six year old who'd desegregated New Orleans' William Frantz elementary school, is forced to walk under the hateful cloud of the "n-word". The starchy lock-step of U.S. Marshalls is contrasted by the riotous splatter of a rotten tomato. Rockwell titled the piece to suggest that people in his time lived with these stark, toxic contrasts everyday. It was an earnest attempt at anti-racism.

My mother, Sandra Marie Frederick, was a 16 year old neighbor of Ruby Bridges in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans. Six years prior to what is depicted in that image, my mother had fought White boys, who flung rocks and spit at her and her younger sister and brother as they came home from school as the only Black children on the block. By the time Ruby Bridges moved to New Orleans from Mississippi, the Lower 9th Ward was all Black. There's no doubt that the White mothers who carried Black baby dolls in caskets, hung them from nooses, screamed, cursed, and threatened this 6 year old child were afraid that Ruby Bridges was the first of many. They felt they had to protect their little White children by all means--rioting and fighting police if necessary.

This wasn't the problem "we all" lived with. This was the problem White people lived with. Anti-Black racism, at its most hateful and violent, lived in the neighbors and church members of your grandparents and great grandparents. Maybe that violent anti-Black racism lived in your grandparents and great grandparents. This is the problem White people's ancestors lived with, and the problem my ancestors fought against.

What does this image signify to you?

Anti-racism is the call of the day. People are realizing that being non-racist is not enough. The problem with being non-racist is that it supposes a neutral starting point. As long as we believe that kids are born without bias, if we remove things that might inspire bias in them, racism will go away. As a child of integrated schools in the 1980s I can tell you two reasons integration didn't eliminate racism.
  1. We never finished removing the things that inspire bias from the history books, science textbooks, English required readings, school names, public monuments, street names, or socio-economic structures of society.
  2. We actually never integrated. Desegregation and "diversity" are not integration.
We are not starting from neutral. We are starting with The Problem We All Live With, which is stacked on top of 10 generations of virulent racism and anti-Blackness. When we assign texts, we need to assign anti-racist texts that work to undo bias and racism, not just pretend they aren't there. But what should we do about flawed attempts at anti-racism like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird?

If we make the analogy that these celebrated books are like literary monuments, all over the country monuments are being torn down. Should we take down Rockwell's painting because the "n-word" is in it? Barak Obama would say no. At Ruby Bridges suggestion, the president had The Problem We All Live With, installed outside of the Oval office from July to October 2011. Why would he do that? I imagine he did it for the same reason I taught Huck Finn; we need to always remember that no American generation starts from neutral.

The White gaze of Twain
Like The Problem We All Live With, To Kill A Mockingbird and Huck Finn are a flawed attempts at anti-racism. As much as they intend to call out White racism, they perpetuate stereotypes. They also venerate Black suffering and White heroism as if the two are inescapably linked. No wonder many of us are numb to Black death and defensive about White poeple's good intentions. For generations, the books we read in school taught us that.

But in The Problem We All Live With, we don't see the White boys who giggled while they spray-painted the "n-word" or threw rotten tomatoes. We see the White man Marshalls marching like soldiers of freedom. We don't see the psychotic, spitting rage of White mothers. We see Ruby Bridges' super-human determination in the face of White riots against her humanity. We don't see the heart-breaking fear in Ruby Bridges mothers's eyes. We see the hard march of human progress. Rockwell's painting, as much as it is an attempt to expose racism, represents the White gaze, a haze of toxic positivity that pretends progress even in the face of the opposite. 

Yet there has been progress, and we can't track it or forward it unless we face the ugliness of the past. Huck Finn is flawed in much the same way that Rockwell's painting is flawed. But just as that painting should be hung up to spark conversation about what it gets right and what it gets wrong, what stories it tells and which stories it doesn't... we should teach Huck Finn for anti-racism.

Teaching Huck Finn for anti-racism was one of my greatest and worthwhile teaching challenges. Here are some ideas I learned from Toni Morrison about how to do that. 


Morrison, Toni. (@ToniMorrison) "If there is a book you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it." October 30th, 2013, 8:26. Tweet. 

Having suggested this, I believe that the best way to engage Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is to excerpt it and teach it with a text that is in conversation with it. Jim Huckleberry, was born for that purpose. 

Jim Huckleberry
 is a new anti-racist retelling of Twain's story from the perspective of Jim as a self-liberated, formerly enslaved Black man. Jim Huckleberry directly confronts the racism in Twain's most famous work, while excavating and building upon the anti-racism imbedded in that conflicted novel.

In Jim Huckleberry, Jim longs for his wife, pines for his children, considers violence as a means to freedom, investigates religion and the nature of existence with the depth of a philosopher. Jim is centered as a full human through an inner-voice full of rhyming, rhythmic lyricism that directly challenges the nearly unintelligible faux "negro dialect" that stains Twain's work. Jim Huckleberry was inspired by a great teaching challenge - teaching Huck Finn in 2016 Baltimore during a racial charged school year at a now integrated independent school with a racist history.

Jim Huckleberry gets Twain's assertion that racism is White people's problem to fix, and centers Blackness to give teachers an anti-racist text to help with that difficult work. The anti-racist power of this book and its origin story in the challenge of teaching Twain will inspire your administrators, teachers, and students to want to be anti-racist. Try Jim Huckleberry as a summer read. You can get it on amazon here. If you need proof of quality, listen to a reading of the opening page on soundcloud here.

Consider engaging this work of an anti-racist teacher and writer. Find out more at

Monday, June 22, 2020

Toni Morrison Taught Me the Challenge Is Worth It: Teach Twain for Anti-Racism

By Michael Otieno Molina

My beloved community of teachers, if you feel motivated to change the world after the murder of George Floyd and the worldwide protests that followed, anti-racism is your next step. Anti-racism means that you do everything you can to expose, expel, and exorcise racism from your classroom and your campus, and then do everything you can to promote racial equity. Being non-racist is not enough. As Dr. King once said, "true peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice."

If you are doubtful that the current wave of desire to do something meaningful will last, you have good reason to doubt. Anti-racism is hard work, especially in the classroom. One of the best ways to prepare to sustain that work is to understand how difficult it is. That's where Twain comes in.

Teaching Twain for anti-racism was one of the most difficult and rewarding challenges of my teaching life. For four years, I taught Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at an elite Baltimore independent school that once barred Black folks like me from being students or teachers. I taught the book one year after uprisings against the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in police custody ripped open festering racial wounds in this deeply segregated southern-most, northern city. Here are the top three things I learned.

  1. Huck Finn is not for middle school. High schoolers are more ready for its complexity.
  2. Teach the Norton Critical edition that has critical essays in the back, including the Toni Morrison essay I'll discuss here.
  3. Deal with the "n-word" before students begin reading.

For Generations, teachers have taught Huck Finn and have tried to convince students, concerned parents, and colleagues that the use of the radioactive "n-word" was Twain capturing the essence of an historical period in America. Those teachers were at best irresponsible and at worst disingenuous. Twain's rampant use of the "n-word" is indefensible. Yet, even at his most overtly racist, Twain's joke was almost always on the notion of Whiteness itself.

Huck Finn is a realistic portrayal of White people's attempts at anti-racism. The book itself is an example of what it asserts. Through it, Twain shows how perilous, difficult, and self-defeating White anti-racist action can be, while showing how necessary that action still is. Again, a key to understanding how to teach Huck Finn is to understand that its existence is the best example of its message; it is a racist book written by a writer with clear anti-racist aspirations.

First, we have to acknowledge the racism.

Twain was a self-publisher and had complete editorial control over his work. He chose to use Edward Kemble for illustrations. Kemble was popular for drawing racist caricature that drew upon the wide appeal of minstrelsy (see the Earl F. Biden critical essay "Kemble's Specialty and the Pictoral Countertext of Huck Finn" and see an example of Kemble's work from Huck Finn at left). According to professor Andrew Levy, author of the book Huck Finn's America, Twain was an ardent fan of minstrelsy as a way to use humor to safely ridicule social norms in the manner of a Shakespearean jester. Some might argue Twain saw himself as a sort of jester. However, Twain ignored the lasting damage of the negative stereotypes about Black people that were core to minstrelsy, and he was too smart a man for us to claim he just didn't know better. Twain also shackled Jim with exaggerated "negro dialect"(his words), while giving Jim the submissive nature of the "noble savage" literary stereotype. Twain then riddled the book with 217 utterances of the toxic "n-word", a frequency that is ultimately inexcusable even in the 1890s. Levy suggests such by noting that Twain would not utter the word out loud when reading from Huck Finn in front of the Black audiences of his day. He knew better.

So Mark Twain was clearly a racist, right? It's complicated.

Mark Twain believed in reparations. When he paid for the room and board of the first Black Yale Law student, Warner T. McGuin (pictured left), from 1885-87, Twain wrote a letter to Yale Law dean Francis Wayland explaining why he did it. He wrote that "[White men] have ground the manhood out of [Black men], & the shame is ours, not theirs; & we should pay for it," before vowing to pay tuition for another Black law student. But Twain didn't stop there. He paid the tuition of a Black student at Lincoln University, America's first Historically Black College. Twain paid for the European apprenticeship of a Black sculptor and interceded on behalf of Frederick Douglass when president James A. Garfield wanted to remove him from a political post. These acts are textbook anti-racist reparations - an open and purposeful redistribution of the economic and social capital of America's most famous White writer on behalf of Black students, artists, and leaders.

Because of all this complexity, teaching Twain was a profound and confounding challenge. Is he racist? Is he anti-racist? Is he both, and if so, what does that tell us about the challenge of White anti-racism? I was pretty lost until the great Dr. Toni Morrison explained how and why to understand Twain's work in her essay about Huck Finn entitled "This Amazing, Troubling Book."

The short story is this: Twain exposed White America's historical supremacist delusion of its mythical White identity as a race of Christian bearers of civilization and promoters of progress. The experience of Black America shines a giant white-hot spotlight on that delusion and Morrison, being a teacher's teacher on top of being one of the greatest writers America has ever produced, turned that spotlight on Huck Finn. Morrison, the great literary critic she was, found a treasure trove of insights on race in America.

In "This Amazing, Troubling Book", Morrison calls Huck Finn "classic literature" highlighting the substantial beauty and literary merit of Twain's terse, evocative, lyrical language. Morrison also calls out American schools for trying to "amputate the problem" of Huck Finn, a book that "heaves, manifests, and lasts." She also argues that the real problem of children reading a book with the "n-word" written 217 times is due to lack of a "serious, comprehensive discussion of the term by an intelligent teacher." Some of us might be saying ouch right now. Clearly, we should deal directly with the weight of that word before students begin reading Huck Finn.

Responding to Toni Morrison's call, here is the pre-work my classes did to prepare to engage with the radioactive "n-word". This took about 80 minutes of class time with homework and some interactive, blended learning elements. We did all this before we read one word of Huck Finn.

  1. Distinguish and contextualize the word's present day ironic use in Black communities by individually listening (with headphones) to the music video for Jay-Z's "The Story of OJ".
  2. As a class, discuss the ironic use of the imagery of minstrelsy in the video and how those images reinforce and undermine the stereotypes associated with the "n-word". You must also address the anti-Semitic stereotype Jay-Z uses and his response to criticism. Have the class consider whether Jay-Z was being ironic when he said Jewish people "own all the property in America."
  3. Discuss why the word is repeatedly uttered in the chorus and why Jay-Z suggests that regardless of a Black person's character or success, they will be seen as 'still n####'.
  4. Use a modified consensus process (with the teacher as the final decision-maker) to discuss whether to say the word out loud. 
  5. Poll students anonymously. 
  6. When giving the verdict on whether to utter it or not (spoiler alert-NOT), I shared a personal story of the psychic and physical violence connected to the use of the word in the segregated New Orleans my parents grew up in and the integrated New Orleans I grew up in. Here is that story recorded at a Baltimore public storytelling event called Stoop Stories: ( 
  7. Play the above Stoop Story (11 min.) or assign for homework to again acknowledge the historical and present day weight of the word.

Finally, as a class, decide what to replace the word with. Discuss the different ways schools, districts, and publishers have dealt with it in the past. Ultimately, we decided that we would not replace the word with the word "slave" or "n-word" or any other euphemism. We would pause in silence to recognize the weight of the word, then continue reading out loud. I thanked them for agreeing to this respectful solution.

One thing to consider is that a student might attempt to say the word anyway as a protest, a joke, or just to be a jerk. In order to cut that off at the pass, my anti-racism muscle kicked in. I made it clear that no student in a class taught by me would ever be allowed to trigger the deep psychological violence associated with that word as it was used against me and my ancestors or any of their Black peers and their ancestors by calling up the racist power of the word by breathing life into the idea of "n#####". It wouldn't happen on my watch, and it shouldn't happen on yours. Take that personally, and if a student crosses that line they must accept the consequences.

Two other thoughts for teachers who may feel they don't have enough class time to do this much work before reading the book: First, much of that work can happen virtually, asynchronously, or in a blended learning context to save time. More importantly, the above seven steps, the Jay-Z song, and the Morrison article seed understanding of the literary device of irony, one of the most difficult for students (and many adults) to grasp. You will find that students understand irony better, which is helpful because irony is Twain's most effective anti-racist tool in Huck Finn.

Once reading begins, you could engage any of the following anti-racist insights that Toni Morrison's critical essay about Huck Finn offers:

  1. The impossibility of Huck and Jim having a healthy friendship at the end of the book (even after they have gone through so much together) makes the story an allegory for the lost friendships that many contemporary Black and White students experience when the reality of America's ongoing struggle with segregation kicks in.
  2. Huck's silence in the face of Jim's dehumanization, until the very end, has disastrous consequences. Those consequences extend to Huck's own stunted emotional and moral growth. Huck's silence serves as a metaphor for the consequences of silence in the face of contemporary racism. 
  3. Huck's complicity in racism against Jim was a cover up for the ever-present threat of ostracization, retribution, and violence against anti-racist allies in White society during slavery and, in some circumstances, now. 

I'll add this specific practice I use from my own experience teaching Twain. Open a Huck Finn discussion with Bob Dylan's "Only a Pawn in their Game" to reflect on Huck's father Pap and his infamously rabid racist tirade. It is one of the more disgusting soliloquies I've ever read. In it, Pap rails against a Black professor he'd encountered in the North whose personal elegance shined an "infernal" white light on Pap's own degenerate lifestyle. Using Dylan's song helps to expose racism as a mental illness that wastes the lives of its victims and its perpetrators. 

Morrison, Toni. (@ToniMorrison) "If there is a book you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it." October 30th, 2013, 8:26. Tweet. 

Having suggested all this, the best way to engage Adventures of Huckleberry Finn might be to excerpt it and couple it with a text that is in conversation with it. At the risk of sounding self-promotional, my new book Jim Huckleberry, was born for that purpose.

Jim Huckleberry
is a new anti-racist retelling of Twain's story from the perspective of Jim as a self-liberated, formerly enslaved Black man. Jim Huckleberry directly confronts the racism in Twain's most famous work, while excavating and building upon the anti-racism imbedded in that conflicted novel.

In Jim Huckleberry, Jim longs for his wife, pines for his children, considers violence as a means to freedom, investigates religion and the nature of existence with the depth of a philosopher. Jim is centered as a full human through an inner-voice full of rhyming, rhythmic lyricism that directly challenges the nearly unintelligible faux "negro dialect" that stains Twain's work. Jim Huckleberry was inspired by a great teaching challenge - teaching Huck Finn in 2016 Baltimore during a racial charged school year at a now integrated independent school with a racist history.

Jim Huckleberry gets Twain's assertion that racism is White people's problem to fix, and centers Blackness to give teachers an anti-racist text to help with that difficult work. The anti-racist power of this book and its origin story in the challenge of teaching Twain will inspire your administrators, teachers, and students to want to be anti-racist. Let me prove it to you by offering Jim Huckleberry as a summer read. You can get it on amazon here. If you need proof of quality, listen to a reading of the opening page on soundcloud here.

If a class set is purchased, I will offer access to 20-30 minute virtual lessons that engage excerpts of both Huck Finn and Jim Huckleberry for comparison and contrast. These could be helpful as soon as Fall of the '20-21 school year as we make our way through future rounds of distance learning. Consider engaging this work of an anti-racist teacher and writer. Find out more at

Teaching Twain critically, alongside the full human story of Jim, is an opportunity to finally reckon with a brutal part of our nation's history. By doing this difficult work with open hearts and minds, we learn skills that will help us to confront some of our nation's other deeply entrenched challenges including class and gender. I believe committing to the tough work of anti-racism can make us better at what most of us got into teaching for, to seed in our students the power to make a better world.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Meaning-Maker Essay - Writing Exercise Model

I asked my students to do this assignment I call a Meaning-Maker Essay. Out of respect for their time and in solidarity with their struggle, I did the assignment myself.

The were to gather bits and pieces of their own unfinished writing as raw material. Then they had to mine for gold by choosing ten phrases that they liked for some reason. Then they had to pan for gold by finding ten words from those ten phrases. Then they had to chose five words and write four sentences after each word. Each of the four sentences had to be either (1) Descriptive, (2) Narrative, (3) Illustrative, or (4) Analysis of process. What results is a Meaning-Maker Poem. Then, by expanding ideas and rooting the meaning of the poem in the essay format, they had to write a Meaning-Maker Essay.

This was the long process of pre-work for writing a personal essay. I wanted to show them that the process could lead somewhere, and it did. This is what I made of it.

Raw Material

The House of God
I am an atom of the mass of all
And the gravity that I have
Attracts what I need
To slide through infinity to me
To make what I want

I am a conduit of life’s consciousness
And every thought is a spore
Spawning a blessed expression of reverence
of the infinite creative force

I am a reflection of life’s perfection
And every moment is now
And now is everywhere
And even those who have passed on
Live there

Energy moves through me
I am an atom of the mass of all

Never had sleepovers with my boys at my house
Cuz I never had the real good toys at my house
Never had sega genesis or a mongoose bike
Never had the Jordan basketball or the shoes with lights
I bought my first nikes with my own money at 14
After slanging campaign flyers all over New Orleans
I shared one pair of girbauds with my sister
Splashed bleach on my jeans
Drew Bart Simpson in the white spots to hide the fact that they were Lees
See mama had a middle class profession
with working class pay
Raised three kids on $35K
Special Education, librarian night shift
And she earned herself a masters degree as a gift on her 50th
See my mama was a lower 9 soldier
So I don’t know how to bow
And I ain’t built to fold up

Daddy from the 7th ward
Mama from the nine
That means I got a hard head
And I don’t mind dying
But I’m trying to live
And leave something for my kids
So I hustle every day to handle biz

A time for rhyme
If we make a place for poetry…

You can rhyme polemic politics with their endemic opposites
Unify a divided nation with alliteration
Make a symphony of a cacophony
Juxtapose to forge a closeness between opposed forces
Make a consonance in the spaces between consonants
If we connect vowels like the waters connect continents
Rhyme crosses every border
And in chaos
Rhyme brings order
Now is the time for rhyme
If we make a place for Poetry

Mining for 10 Phrases

1.     Lower 9 Soldier

2.     Love those we loathe

3.     Make consonance in the space between consonants

4.     Connect vowels like the waters connect continents

5.     Juxtapose to forge a closeness between opposed forces

6.     I’m a conduit of life’s consciousness

7.     I am an atom of life’s mass

8.     Live in some now

9.     I’m trying to live

10.  Every thought is a spore

Panning for 10 Words

1.     Soldier

2.     Love

3.     Consonance

4.     Connect

5.     Opposed

6.     Conduit

7.     Atom

8.     Now

9.     Live

10. Spore

Meaning-Maker Poem

1.     Soldier…
Hard hands grip palms
Worry wept in sweat.
She said, “Whatever you want, baby,”
and walked me through the store, waiting at the edge of each aisle, unsure.

2.     Love…
A warm breath spun a web of whispered wisps of hope
when mama kissed my cheek
she said, “Love you, baby,”
and pressed the button, and pressed the gas, and pressed on to work.

3.     Now…
Between blinks—brief black breaks from the blinding busy—
while all the world wobbled and toggled between day and night—
she said, “How was school, baby?”
She put palm to calf and squeezed and released, and breathed deep, raised
her feet

4.     Live…
She is boxed in a frame—twenty years of loss congealed in the gloss of film.
I light the candle and bow my head to the flicker of flame.
She said nothing, but her picture spoke in a vision, “I live.”
I finished the prayer. I placed the burning wood on amethyst. I sighed.

5.     Spore …
A pudgy hand—small, but certain—pushed my knee forward.
I snap my leg straight to hold myself in place.
She said, “what you doing, daddy?”
I picked her up, pointed to my mother, and told her why I pray.

Meaning-Maker Essay

My mother was a soldier. That’s what we call people in the N.O. who survive the floods even though they can’t swim. Soldiers push through fear. She pushed through that and lack and loss and worry. Her hands were hard from all the pushing through. I knew this for sure the one time she slapped my face. I knew it because it stung for miles as I hung my head and cried.
We were in the sky blue Caravan. It was after school. I was a wise fool spewing truths I knew in my long youth. “You racist against your own people” for not letting me ride the bus, I accused. She responded with a slap that said, as a matter of fact, I will die before you disrespect my struggle.
She had fought white boys in the 1950s to get her siblings home safely. She had had her finger broken by a wild boy, 13 in fifth grade. She had grown up in the Lower Nine, the part of New Orleans that floods the whole world with memories of suffering. She had given her life to the children of a poor city, in whom the weight of the worst of the world had crystalized. A word to the wise would not have done.
I needed to feel the hardness of her hand, this little, thin woman. I needed to know the sound of her flesh. I needed to stiffen my neck against the force of her fury. I needed to hang my head and cry.
Thirty years later, twenty years after she’d died, I hung my head again. I had lit a stick of Palo Santos to cleanse my body of night of worries. I faced my mother, boxed in a frame, frozen in the last healthy year of her life. I had laid the smoking stick under her image, when through tears I’d been swallowing for years, I said thank you. And she rose with the smoke like a returning soldier, and washed over me. I hung my head and cried.
Loss has taught me a lot of things, mostly how to find. When you lose your mother, your father, your brother, you have to find your way forward. The way for me ain’t been no crystal stair. The only way out has been through. Yet, in the space made by these pillars of my life falling as waves do, I’ve found a way. I pray—not to any God you might recognize or any saint you might study. I don’t pray to any secret or sorcery, or to the sun in the sky above me. I pray to the words themselves as they come, that they might turn into flesh. And with deep, deliberate breaths, this is the prayer I have kept: Let me be an instrument of your intention, a conduit of your consciousness, a reflection of your perfection. Let me be your hands now.
Maybe God is listening. Maybe my mother hears. Maybe the words fall on the deaf. Regardless of where the words fall, may they continue to rise in my breath. May they march across fields of time. May they trench in life’s gravity. May they launch to trace my life’s trajectory. May my words be soldiers, that go forth, onward ever, and may they return in peace.
My mother was a soldier and the last words she would ever speak told of her final fight before her final flight, “Where you been?” She’d been waiting for me. And the last sound she made was a song of even tone—a vibrato underneath—“lead me, guide me along the way”. She took my hand and let go.