Reading About Dreaming on the #2 Train

I am on a #2 train, heading uptown.  The train is delayed in the station.  An announcement: “A train in front of this one is having problems closing its doors.”  So we wait.  Recently, there was a fare hike.  It seems like the days and weeks leading up to the fare hike, and the days and weeks after the fare hikes, that train service under the Metropolitan Transportation Authority worsens.

Sitting and waiting on the delayed train, I take a break from reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me.”  On the dust jacket in red lettering is a pronouncement from Toni Morrison: “This is required reading.”

I just finished reading the first part, which starts with a poem from Sonia Sanchez, about martyrdom and death.

Coates writes about the Dream, a dream that died, but somehow lives on.  In my opinion, the Dream died with the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  (This past January I read some of my poetry at an MLK Dinner at St. Marks-In-the-Bowery.  Afterwards, the pastor was giving out buttons.  I took one with a picture of Dr. King that bears the legend: “Fulfill the dream.”  The button is pinned to the black messenger bag on my lap as I sit and wait on the #2 train thinking about the Dream, how despite its assassination in 1968 somehow lives on.)

I rarely remember my dreams, maybe because I have seen so many dreams die various deaths.  And I know that Dr. King not only talked about the Dream, but also the Nightmare.  A child of the ‘60s, the Decisive Decade, as Samuel Yette called it, was one where dreams died young.  My earliest memories revolve around Dr. King’s assassination, that is, the adults’ response to his killing.  In fact, my life, and much of the life of America, can be divided into two periods, Before Martin, and After Martin.

The train is moving after far too many pre-recorded announcements thanking us for our patience.  At least the train was in the station, not the tunnel, giving strap hangers the option to get off the train.

I reopen “Between the World and Me.”  Coates begin the second part with a poem by Amiri Baraka, which I think speaks to Black peoples’ long winter of discontent in America – “when what we want is sun.”

To be continued…

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If I Were President

My first political lesson came, about fifty years ago, via television.  As any other kid during that time, the Decisive Decade (the 1960s), while political assassinations, JFK, Malcolm X, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., RFK, and a host of others, changed America’s social and political landscape, I sat in front of a black-and-white television and watched cartoons on TV.  There was Rocky and Bullwinkle, which taught me, through Rocky’s and Bullwinkle’s main adversaries, Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale, two Russian-like spies, who the enemy was during this Cold War.  So at 6 years of age, I knew Russia was America’s super-enemy.

My political lesson though, about democracy, came during an episode of a cartoon I don’t remember, but that episode was entitled, “If I Were President.”  In it, there was a major election taking place in the animal kingdom for King of the Jungle.  I don’t recall who was the lion’s adversary, but the lion and his opponent campaigned throughout the jungle, imploring the various animals to vote for them.  When the election was over and the animal kingdom votes were counted, it was a dead tie.  The voting rolls were checked and cross-checked against those animals who had voted, and lo and behold, one solitary animal did not vote.  The two candidates went in search of this animal, to convince it to vote for one or the other, because its vote matter and would be the deciding vote.

I don’t recall which candidate secured that deciding vote, because that wasn’t the point of the episode.  It was a lesson in classical democracy, about the importance of voting, about the importance of one vote: one person, one vote.  I didn’t know at the time, but this lesson didn’t apply to our Federal Republic when it came to voting for the president, what with our electoral college.  Funny, all these years later, we have a cartoon-like character, Donald J. Trump, who owns a mansion and a yacht, soon to assume the presidency of the United States, who didn’t win the highest office in the land  according to what I had learned at 6 years of age about classical democracy.

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The Red Hats Are Coming!

Dear Red Hats (you know who you are):

As Donald J. Trump crisscrossed across the country, spewing invective, disrespecting groups of people, and shouting the slogan that a Trump presidency would “make America great again,” I wondered what exactly he meant.  I would like one of you red hats to tell me why that slogan resonated with you and what exactly you think it means.

America, in her greatness, has always been deeply divided and deeply flawed, from her very founding.  The Constitution codified slavery, and through political expediency counted Africans and their descendants as three-fifths of a person, so the slave states would have disproportionate representation in the House of Representatives, because representation in the House would be based on states’ populations, despite the fact that only white men could vote.  (The South, of course, wanted their numerous slaves to be counted for purposes of representation in the House, the North was opposed to this, for the obvious reasons, thus the The-Fifths Compromise.)

Eighty-seven years after the country’s founding, there was a bloody Civil War, with slavery at the forefront.  At the end of this war, the country attempted to move towards the ideal of “a more perfect Union.”  The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were passed, the latter giving Black men the right to vote in 1870.  It would be another 50 years before women would be given the right to vote.

This new post-Civil War America lasted twelve years, the Reconstruction years.  The Hayes-Tilden Compromise of 1877 effectively neutralized these post- Civil War Amendments, with Southern states asserting comity or states’ rights, so they could go back to the business of oppressing and terrorizing descendants of Africans.  (Part of the Compromise was removing Federal troops from the South.)

Plessy v. Ferguson, the United States Supreme Court decision in 1896, made segregation , or Jim Crow, legal.  This ruling was not overturned for 58 years, in 1954, with Brown v. Board of Education, with the same Court declaring that this Brave New No Longer White World could not be “separate and equal.”

In 1917, America became embroiled in the First World War  At its end, in 1919, there was both a Black and Red Summer.  Race riots, that is, white people targeting and killing Black people, spread across the country.  Immigrants, those with left political leanings, were also attacked by good ol’ Americans.

In the 1920s, we saw the rise of the Birth of a Nation, the Ku Klux Klan, who spewed a different king of invective in trying to “make America great [read white] again,” that is, with fiery crosses, castrations of Black men and lynchings, which practically became an American pastime.

In 1941, the Japanese, seeking to take over colonized Asia while white people were occupied fighting each other during World War II, made the tactical mistake of bombing Pearl Harbor and awakening a Sleeping Giant, America.  It was after World War II that America because a Superpower.  Still, during this time, even during the War, America had a great but segregated Army.  (My father, a teenager, served in the segregated U.S. Army during World War II.)

After this Second World War, there was a period of peace and prosperity for white people in America, with the South still oppressing and terrorizing its Black citizens, until the Decisive Decade, when a president, a presidential candidate, and a whole host of Black leaders and white allies were assassinated in an attempt to “make America great again.”

And then there was Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, which Richard Nixon declared “lawless” in 1968 as he ran for president, making “law and order” part of his campaign spiel, as the Donald has in 2016 (and let’s not forget Bush I and his Willie Horton Campaign).  Thus the beginning of the modern war on crime and mass incarceration, fueled by President Clinton, Bamboozler in Chief.

And then there was two presidential terms of America’s first Black president.  Perhaps America was finally moving towards that “more perfect union” and a post-racial society.  But President Obama’s presidency encountered unprecedented obstructionism, mostly from white male Republicans, whom I affectionately call Repugs.

And now we have Donald J. Trump, the president-elect, and the Russians rejoice.  (I wonder why.)

During his campaign, the Donald appealed to the Ugly Americans: racism, sexism, genderism, misogyny, xenophobia and the red hats; yet in his acceptance speech he calls for finding “common ground” and “partnership” in “making America great again.”  For some strange reason, I don’t think the Trumpsters had that in mind.

God bless America!


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Still Celebrating Life!

I saw the best minds of my generation drop out of school and get their education on the streets, in the schools of hard knocks: in group homes, reform schools, jails, reformatories and prisons. They dropped out of schools that didn’t teach The Pedagogy of the Oppressed; schools that didn’t understand the psyche of The Wretched of the Earth; schools that didn’t challenge; schools that placed a premium on memorization and rote at the expense of thoughtfulness and learning; schools incapable of tapping into the creative energy of these minds that were once trained in the greatest institutions of learning on Mother Earth, in Songhai, Ghana, Mali and Timbuktu; schools that taught history that excluded them and their contributions; schools that alienated them; schools that taught cruelty; schools with low ceilings and finite possibilities.

I saw the brightest boys of my generation descend into insanity. They were in the best high schools the City had to offer, but their minds were light-years ahead of the curriculum. We knew they were different, their heads shaped like eggs, but brilliant, not of the world they were relegated. They tutored others in math and science and instead of graffiti wrote formulas on the walls. They were bored in lab so conducted their own experiments, on stray cats and dogs – we saw their remains throughout the projects. They flew homing pigeons from coops on the projects’ rooftops, sent esoteric messages to other egg heads throughout the City’s housing developments. They experimented with mind-altering drugs – Acid, LSD and angel dust. They were our angels, not of the world they were relegated. They leapt off of tall buildings, believing they could fly like their pigeons, and they did, for a brief moment in time, only to crash land on the concrete, their wings crushed and their bodies broken.

I saw the best physical specimens of my generation, the fastest, the strongest, play three sports with effortless grace, not become all Americans. I saw them earn full scholarships to play basketball but drop out of school in their freshman year because they refused to ride the bench behind the starters, when they knew that they ran faster and jumped higher and that they shot hoops with the accuracy of marksmen. So they returned to the streets, their dreams of playing pro basketball dashed on the hardwood floors of colleges eager to exploit their talent; instead they played in the summer leagues, more dazzling than the sun. And when the sun set, not only did the freaks come out, but the gamblers collecting their winnings from the games, the pimps, hustlers, con men and gang members, the whole wide underworld. Then their physical prowess was put to other tests. I saw them outrun cop cars and motorcycles and police dogs. I saw them hurdle five-foot fences, leap from building to building, with cops in hot pursuit, and they seemed to always get away. Before extreme sports were invented, they were pushing their bodies to the outer limits, redefining the use of space. I saw them subway surfing and elevator surfing, engaged in thrills that could kill.

I saw the boldest boys of my generation, those that didn’t die young, graduate from petty to major crimes. It started innocently enough, playing hooky from school, stealing lunch from the bodega, but gradually escalated to shoplifting, burglary, armed robbery and even murder. From juvenile delinquents to juvenile offenders to youthful offenders to adult criminals. In the projects they hunted the rats for sport, with BB guns and bow and arrows; and it turned out that the animals’ remains I saw throughout the projects was not the result of tests of the brilliant egg heads, but the evidence of their torture. They were not only the boldest, but also the most alienated of my generation. They descended into another kind of madness, defined by cruelty. They hated a world that hated them – “The Hate that Hate Produced.” They hated this world of low ceilings and finite possibilities. They hated this world that would deny them their dreams. Thus they ended up in group homes, reform schools, jails, reformatories and prisons. A lawyer would later tell me that all of this was “inevitable,” which made me think of the Watchers, the Watchers from behind Venetian blinds, the projects’ old ones in the know, septuagenarian seers, who predicted that many of my generation wouldn’t amount to anything, that we’d end up in group homes, reform schools, jails, reformatories and prisons, that many of us would not live long, that many of us certainly would not live to see fifty years.

I saw the bravest boys of my generation find their way out of the projects and into basic training. They knew that there was no way they could be all they wanted to be in a housing development with low ceilings and finite possibilities. They went from leaping from building to building to jumping out of airplanes to fight in Granada and Panama. They were honor guards in championship games, those games the best physical specimens of my generation should’ve been playing in. They were in the Marines, in the Army and the Navy. They swaggered down the streets of Spain, ran with the bulls, found cheap thrills in Manila with “our little brown cousins,” redefined what it meant to be a warrior in Japan, fished in Korea and drank beer in Germany and convinced the frauleins that Hitler got it wrong, that these physical specimens were part of the Master Race – you could take them out of the ghetto – none of them came back to the projects. Later, I saw them, military erect, at the funerals of their parents and their younger siblings, casualties of the wars on poverty and crime. We looked at each other, nodding, acknowledging that we were still here, smart, sane, in shape and unbroken – celebrating life.

October 1, 2010

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The Massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church: A Year Later — Lest We Forget!

Recently I read a piece in the AARP Bulletin, the June 2016 issue, on the Charleston Massacre: A Year Later, “The Long Road to Forgiveness.”

As a student of history, I almost always think that we don’t remember what we have not only learned from history, but also what has been witnessed.  On social media I routinely post things about the past, that part of history, normally Black history, that most White Americans want to forget, with the legend, “Lest we forget!”

I am a Black man, born and raised in New York, in Brooklyn, in close proximity yet worlds away from the Hasidim.  Once I learned the history of Jewish people, and I’m not talking about what I learned in school about World War II, the Nazi concentration camps, the Holocaust or “The Final Solution,” and I’m not even talking about what I learned about church history in seminary, but going beyond those lessons in history, even reading historical novels such as The Source, by James Michener, and I know the saying that “the victors write their version of history,” but when you think of Jewish people in the aftermath of World War II, you can’t reasonably state that they were victors and wrote a certain narrative about the Holocaust.  In fact, there are even some revisionists that deny the Holocaust happened!

I know this seems like a digression from the Charleston Church Massacre last year, but what I’m saying is that I understand and have no problem with Jewish people looking at the Holocaust and keeping it “alive” in our consciousness, lest we forget.  I don’t agree with everything my Jewish brothers and sisters do because of their history, but I understand.  I understand their passionate “Never again!”  And even though the piece in the AARP Bulletin about the Charleston Church Massacre looked at forgiveness, I think if the people closest to the massacre can find it within themselves to forgive – and all have not – who am I to question this?  With that though, I would state that forgiveness does not mean forgetting.  The whole point of the article is to remember, but not once in it does it even imply “never again!” to such a massacre, that is, that we will protect our church against such racists like Dylann Roof, but the new pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Rev. Betty Deas Clark, has a “muscular man in a suit [that] never strays from” her, as well as the security cameras that shows 16 views of the church’s property.

Lest we forget, there’s a history of violence against the Black Church in America that long preceded Dylann Roof.  The Black Church was among the first institutions Black people formed in America, with such religious institutions as the African Methodist Episcopal Church being born and formed because of segregated white churches and white Christians treating Black Christians as less than second class Christians, which any Christian should know is an abomination in God’s eyes.  I’m not even going to quote scripture on this, but lest we forget, the Black Church has this long history in America of giving birth to freedom fighters, from Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser and Denmark Vesey to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Any attack on the Black Church is not only an attack on the freedom to worship, but also on Black freedom.

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From my award-winning epic poem, “Black Shadows and Through the White Looking Glass: Remembrance of Things Past and Present” – my tribute to the Greatest!



War was declared,

On two fronts:

At home and abroad.

As American troops fought

To make the world

Safe for democracy,

Or to end all wars,

Or to stop communism

From spreading

Like a communicable disease,

She was fighting

A domestic war


From the War for Independence

To the Vietnam War,

From sea to shining sea,

Blacks fought for American ideals,

The ideals America preached

To the world abroad

But didn’t

Practice at home –

Not for her

Black citizenry.


Reluctantly recruited

Throughout history –

Even during slavery:

The Slave Enlistment Bill –

Oftentimes volunteering:

The War of 1812 –

America now called upon

Her able-bodied Black men

To fight people of color.

Put them on the front lines.

It didn’t matter

That they had nothing to gain

In a separate and unequal world,

Their lives to lose.


The Greatest

Eloquently stated:

“People call me nigger

In this country

Every day.”

It was reported as:

“No Vietcong ever called me nigger.”


“Nigger, nigger, nigger!”


Those are fighting words!

If there’s fighting

To be done,

America’s a good place

To start.


Uncle Sam wants you!

A white finger

Pointing at a

Black male –

Selective Service.


If the Greatest

Wouldn’t fight abroad,

He wouldn’t fight at home.

Stripped of his license to fight

This heavyweight champ,

He fought his battle in court,

Won years later.

But Uncle Sam had called,

And if Uncle Sam wants you,

He gets you,

One way or another.

Uncle Sam

Always gets his man.


Now, we canonize

The defiant Black man

Who threw his Olympic gold medal

In the river.

He was great for doing that.

He was great for not

Fighting in a war

He didn’t believe in,

Against people who’d

Never called him nigger.


“Nigger, nigger, nigger!”

Those are fighting words!

If there’s fighting

To be done,

America’s a good place

To start.


We canonize him –

The Greatest –

For the wrong reasons.

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The Crimes of Bill Clinton Cannot Be Expugned

As Hillary Clinton sprints to the finish line, seemingly to be the democratic candidate for the presidency, I keep thinking of the role her husband, President Bill Clinton, played in the mass incarceration of the nation, specifically Black men.  Granted, it began with President Nixon’s declaration of war in 1968, that is, his War on Crime.  In any event, President Clinton’s continuation and escalation of this war was a powerful political move.  Not only did he steal the crime-fighting agenda of the Republican party, but he also out-Herod Herod.  This move effectively neutralized a generation of Black men, who  would not only carry the stigma of a criminal history for the rest of their lives, but also, because of their absence, created a black hole of chaos in Black communities across the nation, leaving another generation with practically no positive black male leadership or guidance.  (So much of this leadership had already been killed off or imprisoned in the 1960s and 1970s.)  Little wonder that the Crack Epidemic (1984 to the early 1990s) created such devastation in Black communities.

So as Hillary Clinton makes her run and might make history as the first woman president in United States history, I wonder what role her husband will have in her presidency.  In other quarters I have written how the Clintons have bamboozled and continue to bamboozle Black folk.  One thing I know for sure, President Clintons mea culpas ring hollow and his crimes against the black community cannot be expunged.

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