Sanchez, Baraka, You, and Me in the Ages
of Donald Trump and John Wayne
adapted from the Afterword and Acknowledgments in
This Past Was Waiting for Me by Sarah Trembath
Sankofa Love Project, 2018
And now, each night I count the stars,
And each night I get the same number.
And when they will not come to be counted,
I count the holes they leave.
—LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka)
In the short years that have come and gone since January 2014, many of us have struggled to wrap our minds around the loss of Amiri Baraka. The news of his transition to ancestry left me—and maybe you too—with a slow, sinking feeling, like, “Who’s looking out for us now? Who’s going to tell the truth now? Who can we count on to stand up and say that shit time and time again?”
His legacy—the Black Arts Movement and everything it ignited—is embedded in America and the world in ways that are beyond reversal. Yet without the particular guardian-wordsmith that Baraka was, we seem to be a little more vulnerable than we were when he lived and breathed. He was a rock and a pillar. In memorializing him, people frequently point out that his advocacy for Black folk often involved rhetoric that was unkind to others.[i] It is true. But no one I know disagrees: He was as fervent and consistent a warrior for his people than almost anyone who has lived and walked on this earth.
The other major Artists of that movement—like Sanchez, Giovanni, and Madhubuti—continue that campaign of upliftment that they started in the 1960s. They show few signs of even slowing down. And so Baraka’s passing was all the more shocking. So how can we give meaning to his departure? What can we take from the loss?
Perhaps, we think, it’s time for us to show up and do the work the way that he did.
I don’t mean to suggest that we imitate or replicate the greats who made up that Movement that woke up so many minds and gob-smacked the world. I mean, rather, that we commit ourselves to creating and patronizing art in the way that Baraka and the BAM artists did: make the message powerful, make each utterance matter, ask the important questions. Rattle the status quo. Do the research. Counter the lie. Honor the culture. Dignify the ancestors; count the holes that they’ve left.
Make a movement.
Tell our stories our way.
For when we don’t show up and tell our own stories, I heard it said once, “John Wayne is always the hero.”The guy with the gun, the man with the plan or the cowboy swag/public appeal/“bluest eye”/right “sex, age, skin, nose, and hair”/ flunkiest sidekick/fattest financial backing/biggest stamp of approval from Powers that Be—that personwrites/films/ teaches/preaches/dances/sings/acts out The Story as if the romanticization and repetition of it is the same as Telling the Truth:
We can't turn back! We're blazing a trail that started in England. Not even the storms of the sea could turn back the first settlers. … They blazed it on through the wilderness… Famine, hunger, not even massacres could stop them. And now we picked up the trail again. And nothing can stop us! Not even the snows of winter, nor the peaks of the highest mountain. We're building a nation….
—John Wayne as Breck Coleman in The Big Trail (1930)
That person writes our stories and hopes that we’re too swept away by the soundtrack to ask many questions. Like: “What is the relationship of the Lone Ranger to the means of production?” as Baraka himself once asked.
Romanticized imperialist premises like John Wayne’s; like the Lone Ranger; like “Manifest Destiny,”[ii]the “Settling” of the West, and “All of our wars are just wars,” enter our minds from our very first book, from all types of media, in most of our classrooms, and through a great deal of our public art. And while the White supremacist heterosexist macho-messages they spread everywhere are certainly giving way to more inclusive and more truthful representations in scholarship, public utterance, art, and politics, there isa powerful undertow back to the sickening half-truths of yore.
During the Obama years, segments of society seemed repelled by inclusiveness and harked backwards toward romanticized aggression, calling for a “renewed focus on…the writings of the Founding Fathers…that celebrates the birth of this great nation”regardless of the genocide and enslavement upon which so many of those Founding Fathers built the nation. Growing segments of the public also embraced “alternative facts” about current events. White supremacists welled their ranks. They galvanized around their ideas. And then they hired rogue reactionary anti-intellectual fib-teller/billionaire Donald Trump as President of the United States.
With that flabbergasting election, it became very clear: John Waynism is thriving in the US. After the dignified intellectualism and organic cool of the Obamas, Trump’s Twitter wars-of-words with everyone from regular citizens to the world’s nuclear-ready dictators almost seem more bizarre in their toxic manliness than they are terrifying. It is now perfectly clear that “sometimes (always), the past erupts/out of the muck like a snake we didn’t think/was there but is suddenly in our goddamned boat,” as poet Natalie Giarratano writes.
But even before Trump’s election (or his theft of the presidency, as time may very well reveal), before he arose out of the muck and ended up in our collective boat, the viciousness of history felt like a countercurrent, an undertow that was pulling at our heels. The election of Barack Obama had felt like such incredible progress, and it was. But the undertow let us know we could go swiftly in the other direction at any time. Could you feel the pull backwards in time? The blatant racism that harked back to the turn of the 20th century? The gun advocacy that seemed patterned on the Wild Wild West? The Republican refusal to work with that Black president in which they—the self-proclaimed “Mavericks” of the American Right—preferred mindless but unified rejection of all presidential initiatives and even government shutdown to dealing with Obama at all? We didn’t know it then, but it foreshadowed Donald Trump. One has to wonder now how many of Trump’s blatant reversals of the Obama Administration’s accomplishments have to do solely with race. “[W]e can’t all of a sudden get down on our knees and turn everything over to the leadership of the blacks,” as John Wayne said a generation ago. Each day brings more news of White House initiatives to curb freedoms, formalize domestic militarism, sacrifice the environment, squash grassroots activism, and put the natives, the other colored people, the ladies, and “the gays” back in subordinate places.
During the Obama Administration, hate group membership increased drastically, the Supreme Court rolled back a key element of the Voting Rights Act, and the Texas Board of Education tried to write slaveryout of history altogether.And now—under Trump—White supremacists have taken to the streets in broad daylight, and racist rhetoric has become acceptable public speech. Mass killings are on the increase, and police shootings of unarmed Black people still go unpunished just like the deeds of the ‘nappers, traders, breakers, drivers, and post-Reconstruction vigilantes of yore. “Out here, due process is a bullet” could just as easily be said about all of this era’s police-involved shootings as it was 50 years ago in Wayne’s Green Beret movie. But we “can’t whine and bellyache ’cause somebody else got a good break and [we] didn’t, like these Indians are,” as John Wayne said once,sounding like The Donald on one of his deeply racist but rootsy-sounding rants.
No, we have not come all that far from being a John Waynist society. As James Baldwin once said, “History is not the past. It is the present, and we carry it around with us. To pretend otherwise is criminal.”
Baldwin’s work also reminds us that “Now’s the time all [our] buried corpses begin to speak,” though. As the truth in this chilling observation suggests, the job of the Trump-era artist or activist may very well be to keep the past alive until it’s resolved in Justice, to halt the erasures, to do the sankofa work. More than once, I have felt that my job as an artist/scholar is to give buried corpses the platform to which I, as a living person, have access.
Baraka and his contemporaries were more feverishly dedicated to that kind of work than almost anyone in US history. In one of his countless efforts to set the record straight, he poetically pinpointed the Black (and, in my opinion, First Nation) situation in the so-called New World. He wrote:
If you ever find
yourself, some where
lost and surrounded
who won’t let you
speak in your own language
who destroy your statues
& instruments, who ban
your omm bomm ba boom
then you are in trouble
they ban your
omm boom ba boom
you in deep deep
probably take you several hundred years
Perhaps the artist and intellectual’s role in getting us “out,” as Baraka languaged it, is the same as it was in the Black Arts Movement era: to negate negative images and create positive ones, according to Black Arts pioneer and poet Sonia Sanchez.“The Black artist must draw out of his soul the correct image of the world. He must use this image to band his brothers and sisters together in common understanding of the nature of the world (and the nature of America) and the nature of the human soul,” Baraka said once.This is the mindset I claim when I put my mind to a pen or my mouth to a mic. Like other spoken word artists and scholars of any race, I go to omm bomm ba boom: The drum. (The truth.) The drum.
My generation of artists is blessed that so many scholars, artists, and activists—in the Black Arts tradition or all the other, interrelated anti-oppression arts movements—“maintain[ed] their defiance”on our behalf. The liberation-inspired and uplift-intended works of artists in a great many communities—Native American, Latinx, Asian/Pacific Islander, working class or progressive-elite White, LGBT, progressive straight, feminist, progressive male, poor, conscientious bourgeois, and re-educated elite as well as the radical Black—made our way better for us. They set about healing the wound that the guy with the gun/man with the plan inflicted, and thus they enabled us to set our sights broader and hold our heads higher and grow in knowing the truth. I thank God for these women and men and align myself humbly behind them.
I align myself most specifically behind the Black Arts Movement’s broadly humanistic and profoundly influential founding mother, who mentored me during my junior and senior years at Temple University before sending me on to Howard University to further my studies. What Professor Sonia Sanchez set in motion in me almost 30 years ago, I aim to move forward a stretch. I hope that the teaching and writing that I have done in that time honors her and her legacy.
As Gil Scott-Heron once said in honoring his hero Fannie Lou Hamer, the thing about liberation history is that someone always “shows up next” to move the work forward some more.In these days, the truth of Scott-Heron’s axiom is being revealed through the shock-value of Mortality itself. Many of the world’s greatest change-makers were silenced by their own mortality in recent years: Baraka, both Mandelas, Angelou, Ali, Bowie, Wiesel, Seeger, Zinn, Marion Barry, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and Gil Scott-Heron himself. But it is comforting to recall Scott-Heron’s insight: Somebody always shows up next.I’m thinking it should be us. When I hear the historically rooted and profoundly subversive threads weaving through Paul Tran’s spoken word art, when I read the sharp social critiques embedded in Tyree Daye’s blues poems, when I get a chance to peep the healing motivation behind Seema Reza’s work, I’m thinking it already is us, to a great extent. I mean, Shailja Patel gave us Migritude. She showed up.
Back in 1992, when I left Temple, went to Howard, and began to study Black Literature at the graduate level, I made a commitment to keeping that tradition alive and spreading its wisdom. I have, in many ways, been blessed in the years since then to always have had an outlet—a mic, a classroom, a call for papers, a willing editor—for my passion for this work. And so I’m curious: What’s your liberation tradition? What’s your outlet for your truth? Whose are your “buried corpses”? What’s your platform? What will you move forward with in the name and tradition of your enlightened elders? Which of their principles will you embody and live? What ethics guide your practice?
Like many artists, I strive in my work and life to live by the principles of peace and the practices of liberation that are steeped in the ethics of my religion but were also well articulated by Professor Sanchezin her professional and public life. Publicly and over the course of her great career, she set her agenda—and therefore the agenda of those of us who’ve sat at her feet—as nothing other than Peace through the art of poetry, specifically through the art of haiku. As poet laureate of Philadelphia, she said, “It’s important not just to learn how to write a haiku, but to have a haiku life…. There is no greed or violence in haiku.”
In this era, a thing without greed or violence is a precious thing. Perhaps our job is to practice that which manifests generosity and peace.
Haiku—or whatever brings us peace after we see our newsfeeds filled with violent and greedy leaders doing violent and greedy deeds—may be the thing to bring us back to our own centers. Haiku—or whatever brings us peace after we figure out how we’re going to fight the good fight against all that and create the change we were born to create—may be the thing that keeps us connected to our own centers. There is something in our lives that, like a calligrapher’s brush moving slowly over porous sheets of paper, causes us to slow down and create something simple and beautiful that reminds us of miracles and what’s really important in life. Your haiku, your wongol,your sonnets, your blues, whatever they are, may also be the social change that we need so much right now. For, as poet Etheridge Knight reminded us in haiku verse,
To write a blues song
is to regiment riots
and pluck gems from graves.
How ‘bout that.
There is, behind haiku, a tradition of close and quiet observation, contemplation of the things that really matter amid the chaos. There is, in blues, the extraction of unfathomable sorrow and the shaping of it into expressible form; in sonnets, revelatory notions hidden within measured regimentation; and in wongol, the revolutionary power of the spoken word to shake the foundations of tyrannical systems. Poetry in the Trump era offers all this and reminds us that the poet’s method is to take things in for contemplation and say those things back to us for our own transformation.
In the 17th century travel log of the world’s most renowned haiku poet, Matsuo BashŌ,the poet came out of his hermitage and observed the moon, the shadows of mountains, the Zen masters in their own hermitages, and the poems that had been written by other sages—or their students—and tacked to trees or marked on rocks with charcoal. His work is beautiful in its simple, contemplative nature and ability to mirror back:
on a white poppy
a butterfly’s torn wing
is a keepsake
a single cicada’s cry
sinking into stone
now a cuckoo’s song
carries the haiku master
right out of this world
But such poetry can feel old and impossible to us. The world around us is far less immediately inspiring, and our lives are often too fast and hard.
And so Sanchez, responding to the emergencies of her time, writes:
i see you black boy
bent toward destruction watching
for death with tight eyes
we make our own
way to birth asking which is
the long walk to death
your love was a port
of call where many ships docked
until morning came
Our struggles—political as well as personal—are laid before us in her work, dignified by having been made beautiful. There is, as Sanchez revealed, something about both reading and writing such sparse poems that lends itself to a peaceful inner state. Something about the wide-openness of short forms lends itself to internal closure and bids us to breathe. Perhaps then, the job of the artist in the Trump era is not just deep study and remembrance and saying-back, but also a commitment to embracing self-care. Poems are meditations whether they reflect the beauty in the beautiful, offer the transcendent in the harsh, or function as a purging. And they are cool and musical. It is true about poetry that
Making jazz swing in
Seventeen syllables AIN’T
No square poet’s job
And so Tran can cut through all manners of lies and systems of lies in any of his lines about the effect of the Vietnam war on his family.Seema Reza can both convict the world powers and help heal its individual citizens when she shares her poet’s craft with veterans.Daye can sum up the race/class dynamics in his poem “Gentrification,” as well as folks’ perspective on it, accomplishing in a half page what I did in 66 pages in my own book of creative nonfiction and poems, Daye writes:
We don’t need a scientific method. We
don’t need to know how far the stars are but we
know them like kin. We
measure a baby’s weight
by placing them in the palm of our hands. We
We the poor folks at the bottom of the hill
can hear the rich coming like a river.
Whether or not the community survives that coming of the rich, its perspective of itself remains in tact so long as it sees itself through eyes like Tyree Daye’s eyes.
Professor Sanchez told me once that the poet’s job is actually that of a shaman, dramatizing what’s ailing the community and drawing the sickness out for the purpose of healing. My own independent study with her, in fact, was on Black women writers as healers. As I seek to honor her here and reflect on that, I realize how relevant that wisdom is for the artists in this era who have tasked ourselves with healing the soul of this sick but beautiful country that we inhabit. Seema Reza literally does it when she works with veterans of US wars in the Middle East. Daye and Tran situate themselves well in the tradition of the artist/healers whom they claim[iii]—whether they sought to be healers or not. There are innumerable other artists picking up that generation’s torches and, through whatever medium they choose—like Kara Walker’s murals, like Imani Uzuri’s musical compositions, like Junot Diaz’s essays—running with it as far as they can go. And most of the original Black Arts Movement artists haven’t even stopped their work yet! There is hope.
I am often amazed at how long the Black Arts Movement giants have been doing this shamanistic work, how supernaturally strong and healthy they always seem when one sees any of them in person, and how unwavering they have been in their focused commitment to bringing up their people. “Know the realenemy. … Change,”as Black Arts giant Don Lee/Haki Madhubuti/shaman intones. “Don’t cry, scream,”he demands.
I wonder about them and their mettle. I can only hope that my own is developing.
Researching the work that appears in my book, which explores hard histories like slavery, colonization, gentrification, and race hatred, has certainly been emotionally challenging for me at points. It put me face to face for prolonged periods of time with the worst of humanity’s propensity to harm itself. It had me, sometimes, on roller coaster rides of emotion—the highs (revolution!) and the lows (oppression) of my country’s mixed history. During the long time it took me to research and write that book, I realize, the a