Harper, Michael S(teven) 1938-
HARPER, Michael S(teven) 1938-
Born March 18, 1938, in Brooklyn, NY; son of Walter Warren and Katherine (Johnson) Harper; married Shirley Ann Buffington, December 24, 1965 (divorced, September 28, 1998); children: Roland Warren, Patrice Cuchulain, Rachel Maria. Ethnicity: "Black American." Education: Los Angeles City College, A.A., 1959; Los Angeles State College of Applied Arts and Sciences (now California State University, Los Angeles), B.A., 1961, M.A., 1963; University of Iowa, M.A., 1963; additional study at University of Illinois, 1970-71. Politics: Independent. Religion: "Born Catholic; free thinker."
Contra Costa College, San Pablo, CA, instructor in English, 1964-68; Lewis and Clark College, Portland, OR, poet-in-residence, 1968-69; California State College (now University), Hayward, associate professor of English, 1970; Brown University, Providence, RI, associate professor, 1970-73, professor, 1973—, I. J. Kapstein Professor of English, 1983—, director of writing program. Visiting professor at Reed College, 1968-69, Harvard University, 1974, and Yale University, 1977; Benedict Distinguished Professor of English, Carleton College, 1979; Elliston Poet, University of Cincinnati, 1979; National Humanities Distinguished Professor, Colgate University, 1985. Bicentennial poet, Bicentennary Exchange: Britain/USA, 1976. American specialist, International Congress of Africanists (ICA) State Department tour of Africa, 1977; lecturer, German University ICA tour of nine universities, 1978. Council member, Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities, 1977-80; board member, Yaddo Artists Colony, Sarasota Springs, NY; original founding member, African Continuum, St. Louis, MO; judge, National Book Awards in poetry, 1978, 1993, 2001, Pulitzer Prize for poetry, 1993, Poulin prize for BOA Editions, and Lenore Marshall Prize for the Academy of American Poets.
Fellow, Center for Advanced Study, University of Illinois, 1970-71; National Book Award nomination, 1970, for Dear John, Dear Coltrane, 1970; Black Academy of Arts and Letters award, 1972, for History Is Your Own Heartbeat; National Institute of Arts and Letters award and American Academy award in literature, both 1972; Guggenheim fellowship, 1976; National Endowment for the Arts creative writing award, 1977; Massachusetts Council for the Arts Award, 1977; National Book Award nomination, Melville-Cane Award, Poetry Society of America, both 1978, both for Images of Kin: New and Selected Poems; Governor's Award, Rhode Island Council for the Arts, 1978; named poet laureate of State of Rhode Island, 1988-93; Robert Hayden Poetry Award, United Negro College Fund, 1990; Phi Beta Kappa fellow, 1991; George Kent Poetry Award, 1996, for Honorable Amendments: Poems; Claiborne Pell Award, 1997; honorary doctorates in letters from Trinity College, Coe College, Notre Dame College, Kenyon College, and Rhode Island College.
Dear John, Dear Coltrane, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1970, reprinted, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1985.
History Is Your Own Heartbeat, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1971.
Photographs, Negatives: History as Apple Tree (also see below), Scarab Press (San Francisco, CA), 1972.
Song: I Want a Witness (includes Photographs, Negatives: History as Apple Tree), University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1972.
Debridement, Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1973.
Nightmare Begins Responsibility, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1974, 1995.
Images of Kin: New and Selected Poems, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1977.
Rhode Island: Eight Poems, Pym-Randall, 1981.
Healing Song for the Inner Ear, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1985.
Songlines: Mosaics (limited edition), Ziggurat Press/Brown University (Providence, RI), 1991.
Honorable Amendments: Poems, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1995.
Songlines in Michaeltree: New and Collected Poems, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 2000.
Selected Poems, Arc Publicatons (Lancs, England), 2002.
Debridement/Song: I Want a Witness, Paradigm Press (Providence, RI), 2002.
(Compiler) Ralph Dickey, Leaving Eden: Poems, Bonewhistle Press, 1974.
(Compiler) Robert Hayden, American Journal (limited edition), Effendi Press, 1978.
(Editor, with Robert B. Stepto; and contributor) Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1979.
(Editor, with Anthony Walton) Every Shut Eye Ain't Asleep: An Anthology of Poetry by African Americans since 1945, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1994.
(Editor, with Anthony Walton) The Vintage Book of African-American Poetry, Vintage Books (New York, NY), 2000.
Contributor to Black American Literature and Humanism, edited by R. Baxter Miller, University Press of Kentucky, 1981.
Also contributor to poetry anthologies, including The Poetry of Black America, To Gwen with Love, Starting with Poetry, Understanding the New Black Poetry, The Black Poets, and Natural Process. Contributor to periodicals, including Black Scholar, Black World, Chicago Review, Negro American Literature Forum, Negro Digest, and Poetry. Guest editor, Iowa Review, Massachusetts Review, and American Poetry Review.Editor, with John Wright, of special issue of Carleton Miscellany on Ralph Ellison, winter, 1980. Member of editorial boards of TriQuarterly, Georgia Review, and Obsidian.
Michael S. Harper is "a deeply complex poet whose mission is to unite the fractured, inhumane technologies of our time with the abiding deep well of Negro folk traditions," said John Callahan in the New Republic. Harper does this, noted Poetry reviewer Paul Breslin, by drawing "upon black history, literature, and myth," as do many other black writers. "What distinguishes Harper as a unique poet," wrote Norris B. Clark in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "is a distinctive voice that captures the colors, mood, and realities of the personal, the racial, and the historical past, and a philosophy that bridges the traditional schism between black America and white America."
Harper himself supports Clark's statements, once telling CA that his voice evolved from travels made in the late 1960s "to Mexico and Europe where those landscapes broadened my scope and interest in poetry and culture of other countries while I searched my own family and racial history for folklore, history, and myth for themes that would give my writing the tradition and context where I could find my own voice. My travels made me look closely at the wealth of human materials in my own life, its ethnic richness, complexity of language and stylization, the tension between stated moral idealism and brutal historical realities, and I investigated the inner reality of those struggles to find the lyrical expression of their secrets in my own voice."
Harper's interest in history pervades his poetry, and the themes underlaying much of his work are directly related to this interest. In the words of David Lehman in Poetry, his efforts are "attempts of a more historical nature to illuminate the black experience in America." He uses stories from both his family's past and from events in black history in general to illustrate his points: Harper's grandfather facing a mob threatening to burn his home; John Henry Louis, a Vietnam veteran and Congressional Medal of Honor winner, shot in the streets of Detroit by a shopkeeper who owed him money; a slave who, told to saw a limb off a tree, sat on the limb itself while working. Harper's poems also incorporate jazz and blues rhythms to "revive the past through the reader's inner feelings, by creating a new sense of time and by arranging a historical awareness," said Clark. His success in this is marked by a sense of "history automatically yielding up its metaphor, as the facts are salvaged by the careful eye and ear informed by a remarkable imagination which balances the American present and past," according to Laurence Lieberman in the Yale Review.
Harper's concentration on the past is not what makes his work unique, however. Robert B. Stepto, writing in the Hollins Critic, related Harper's work to a primary tradition in Afro-American letters: "the honoring of kin," a tradition Harper shares with writers such as Ralph Ellison and Robert Hayden. Although Harper's early work included many poems about his wife's family, his wife, and their children, it was not until the publication of Nightmare Begins Responsibility that he began to write about his own past. In that collection, Harper wrote poems for both his grandfathers and his mother's mother, poems whose "matter-of-fact, stoic lines," in Callahan's opinion, "enlarge the scale" of their lives. Callahan called these poems "masterful and unforgettable;" he noted that in his work, Harper "evokes for his children the lives of people whose legacy is a strength and integrity that crossed over the turf of survival."
In addition to personal family figures, Harper also uses, in Lieberman's words, the lives of key figures "in the black man's struggle to achieve an American identity" in collections such as Debridement and Dear John, Dear Coltrane. Figures such as the baseball player Jackie Robinson, novelist Richard Wright, poet Sterling Brown, and jazz musician John Coltrane are "kin who share the goal of artistic excellence in whatever may be their craft or endeavor," said Stepto. Michael G. Cooke pointed out in Afro-American Literature in the Twentieth Century: The Achievement of Intimacy that Harper's honoring is not limited to ties of blood or race. According to Cooke, he said, "kinship means social bonding, a recognition of likeness in context, concern, need, liability, value. It is humanistic, a cross between consanguinuity and technical organization." Cooke commented that while Harper "invokes blood relations" in several inspired cases, "his approach to kinship is a radiant one, reaching out across time, across space, even across race" to include white men such as the Puritan dissident and founder of Rhode Island, Roger Williams, and the farmer-turned-abolitionist, John Brown.
Harper's acceptance of both black and white historical figures as kin is recognized by critics as an original factor in his poetry. Clark indicates that Harper "is neither a black poet nor a white poet; as he freely acknowledges, he uses both traditions and heritages rightfully his and America's to create images of power and beauty." He points out that Harper has stated that he reads white authors "to see how they make use of form, as well as to evaluate black character and motivation." Yet, although Harper criticizes white poets who, in his opinion, use the black idiom inconsistently, he does not reject them. Clark concludes that Harper "is comfortable in not denying a dual tradition as many white American writers and black American writers have done," and said he "continues to be a poet of harmony—accepting unity and diversity—rather than discord."
Honorable Amendments, Harper's ninth poetry collection, blends "moments of lyric intensity" with the author's "direct, authoritative diction," according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Once again, Harper summons up images of great black artists, including Zora Neale Hurston, Dexter Gordon, Sarah Vaughan, and Ralph Ellison. Ellison, an esteemed novelist who was a personal friend of Harper, "ideally embodies Mr. Harper's vision of an American culture in which folk narratives and great works of art cohabit, neither one elevated above the other," wrote Elizabeth Gaffney in the New York Times Book Review. Gaffney did comment that Honorable Amendments is of "uneven" quality, and at times falls into cliché. She further explained that "subjects he examines closely spring to life, but many oblique or fleeting references fail to attain any satisfying meaning." The Publishers Weekly critic had an opposite viewpoint, saying that Harper "steadfastly avoids cliched enshrinement of heroes."
Songlines in Michaeltree: New and Collected Poems brings together work from Harper's past, as well as previously unpublished verse. This volume is a "welcome retrospective," according to a Publishers Weekly writer, one in which Harper's "progressive, improvisatory power respects a variety of traditions in the arts." Jazz legends are again conjured up in verse, and the influence of poets as diverse as W. B. Yeats and Gwendolyn Brooks is also noticeable. The critic concluded that Songlines in Michaeltree is "a testament to the scope of Harper's ambitions and masteries," one that "should solidify Harper's reputation as an engaging, accessible, uncompromising keeper of the flame."
African-American Review contributor Keith D. Leonard wrote that in Harper's "best poems about personal pain, about historical figures like Frederick Douglass, or about musicians and writers and, therefore, about artistry, his chiseled, forbidding poetics effectively suggest the harrowing unity between vision and memory, Western and non-Western, pain and beauty, by which Harper defines black identity and resists literary convention."
Michael S. Harper contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA in 2004:
FRAMING THE TALE:
Critical Assays of the Life and Times of Michael S. Harper
I was born in my grandfather's home, 902 Lafayette Avenue, delivered by Dr. Roland R. Johnson. Dr. Johnson had delivered my mother, Katherine Louise Johnson Harper, in the same house, April 29, 1913. She was the first girl born in her family for generations, a middle child with an older brother, Barrett, and a younger sister, Alice Elizabeth, named for her mother, Alice Braxton Johnson. My mother was in labor with me for thirty-three hours, and when I was delivered, Dr. Johnson exclaimed, "Look, he's marked for Papa!" He meant that I had a mole in the exact place—my right shoulder—his father John Albert Johnson had a mole. Then he looked at my toes and said "Look at those toes; he won't be long with you, Katie!" Katie was my mother's nickname, and for one who insisted that I be called Michael, not Mike, the tone of her voice said everything. She taught me to read. My first book was The Arabian Nights. My mother was my Scheherazade, a name I called my sister, also Katherine, five years younger. My brother, Jonathan, was between us, born in 1941, May 17.
My mother had no experience with children before I was born. I was the first grandchild on either side of the family. My father was determined I would not be spoiled; yet I was my mother's confidant. She had an intellect, wit, recall—for she had a marvelous ability to remember names, situations, knew how to place people, could mimic their idiomatic styles with quick and sometimes devastating aplomb. She was uncanny in her referencing. In the manner of a novelist sketching a scene (Galsworthy, of The Forsythe Saga fame, was one of the authors she and my father read and discussed during their courtship) Katie orchestrated personal histories, habits of personality, all with the timbre of her voice: what was announced from the outside emanated from within.
My grandfather, Dr. Roland R. Johnson, died on my mother's birthday in 1940. My parents, who rented an apartment in my Aunt Edie's house, moved up the street to Grandma's house. Both my parents were children of the depression, and though I was born in 1938 I don't remember missing a meal or ever being hungry. When my brother, Jonathan Paul, was born in 1941, it was in a hospital; my sister, Katherine Winifred, was born in 1943. My sister, who's the sage of the family, often says "Michael had no childhood; I had three parents, my father, my mother, and my oldest brother." I never felt burdened because we were a close family. We listened to the radio; soap operas were almost free. There was laughter in the house and a division of labor: children were seldom within earshot of adult talk, unless you were eavesdropping; folks entertained at home; we played cards on weekend evenings, listened to records, and danced; and there was a piano.
"the self is not a genie in a bottle"
So much of one's story is a framing principle of order and disorder. Some of my memory details need framing: 902 Lafayette Avenue, just off Lewis Avenue; the impact of walking down a wide thoroughfare lined with chestnut trees, many of which blew down during the hurricane of '48; the snowstorm of '47 where I helped shovel twenty-six inches of snow; Public School 25, across the street from my aunt's residence at 816 Lafayette (Aunt Edie—Edith Braxton Ford—native New Yorker and graduate of Hunter College, who taught in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, a tough section famous for the "murder incorporated" gangsters of Movietone news); Mrs. Orloch, my homeroom teacher; Mrs. Silver, who called my father because I was hanging out with the "wrong" crowd. I began riding the subways in 1943 at five years old without my parents' knowledge. At eight I was caught, on the very same day, by my father and his mother (my grandmother). I knew the city and its neighborhoods by underground travel, by vantage spots on the el, by riding the Staten Island Ferry, and slipping into baseball games without a ticket. My father was a New York Giant fan. It was my job to report the play-by-play of his favorite team, and though I lived in Brooklyn during the desegregation of the National League during the '47 "Jackie Robinson" era, my loyalty was to my father and his team.
I fought every day with my schoolmates, cutting school on Jewish holidays, attending shul occasionally, and attending "religious instruction" each Wednesday afternoon. My father was a Catholic, my mother an Episcopalian, and I an evangelical "Baptist," attending storefront churches within walking distance because of my love for the singing. My favorite was "The Midnight Church of God and Christ." I was an altar boy at St. John's Catholic Church, often attending early mass, and adjusting to the schism of church and state. My brother and sister attended St. John's Catholic School from kindergarten; I attended P.S. 25 from first grade to eighth grade graduation, and though I took the Regents Examination for high school and had the choice of Stuyvesant, the Bronx School of Science, or Brooklyn Technical, all college preparatory schools. I attended none of them; my parents moved to Los Angeles. This transition for an asthmatic boy of thirteen was the trauma of "lost neighborhoods," for all poetry derives from one's first homeland, whether Joyce's Dubliners, or Mary Anne Moore's beloved Dodgers.
MEET LIFE'S TERMS BUT NEVER ACCEPT THEM:
The family background sketched large
John Albert Johnson and James Randolph Braxton are atypical African American leaders, anomalies in their respective communities, and not properly contextualized in my opinion. They were both dead long before my time, yet they live in my imagination, most particularly through my mother's notations and my father's memoir. This is more than family allegiance because so much lore was extinguished by slavery and poor research records—or none at all. I know because I've done some, including archival research in the Virginia archives at the University of Virginia, and in family letters where slaves were considered chattel, property, but not kin. From that research [The National Encyclopedia of American Biography, 1931]:
John Albert Johnson was an African Methodist Episcopal bishop, born in Oakville, Ontario, Canada, October 29, 1857, son of John A. and Mary (Mackay) Johnson. Reared in the Anglican faith, he was converted to Methodism while a student at the University of Toronto. He was ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal church ministry in 1875, and served his first charge as an itinerant minister in St. Johns. His church work in Canada, where he ministered for three years, extended over a wide circuit in Nova Scotia, which took him six weeks to traverse, and included charges at Oakville, Chatham, St. Catherine, and Hamilton, Ontario.
Johnson later came to the United States to take charge of the Union African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At the same time, he studied in the Philadelphia Divinity School and was graduated in 1895, the second colored graduate of that institution. In 1907 the general conference at Norfolk, Virginia, elected him bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal church and assigned him to the diocese of South Africa. He served as a missionary from 1908 to 1916, presiding over a vast territory, which included Cape Colony, German Southwest Africa, the Orange Free State, the Transvaal, Besutoland, Bechuanaland, Natal, and Zululand, with headquarters at Capetown.
Besides his evangelizing work, Johnson also rendered considerable medical services among the Zulus and other African tribes and trained many natives to help others better their condition. He returned to the United States in 1916, after eight years of service in Africa. For the ensuing twelve years he served as bishop in the second district, comprising Kentucky and Tennessee.
Bishop Johnson had two sons: my grandfather, Roland Rufus Johnson, a doctor who delivered me and all his children, including my mother, and Percival Johnson, a dentist, who died in Chicago of septisemia. Johnson was one of the presiding elders at Frederick Douglass's funeral in 1895, a trustee of the Freedman's Bank, a founding member of the American Negro Academy, and an outstanding pulpiteer of the African Methodist Episcopal church. In life, he was idolized by his flock for his spiritual qualities and his deep comprehension of the religious needs of the colored race. He died November 22, 1928, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he made his home. His writings are collected in the New York Public Library, Harlem Branch, now known as the "Schomburg" Collection, which includes a "daybook" that he kept during his ministry in Bermuda, 1888 through 1892. He was the first to keep a record of daily activities on the island, such as the coming and going of ships, ministering to the poor, correspondence, and events like the end of slavery in Brazil, 1888. One of his entries reads as follows:
[Saturday 9th April 1892] Have spent the week teaching in the Institute, greatly adding to my pastoral duties, indeed. Though I have been very busy at all the spare hours I have not been able to overtake my work. Wrote to Mama and Minnie wrote to her mother and sister Sarah. Sent the former $5. Have heard the shocking news of the murder of Bishop Jones in S. Carolina U.S.A. ruthlessly shot in the pulpit. Oh! Oh! Oh!!!! America, how long shall these foul atrocities be practiced upon the unfortunate Negro. No law. No Justice. No help offered him. And yet the loud boast is constantly made of your magnanimity, your love of Justice, and righteousness, "God Lives" however and will help some day. "Rise O Lord and let thine enemies be scattered."
Another entry dated 1888:
End of Slavery in Brazil. What will happen to the Monarchy.
My mother wrote the following in her own hand, long after his passing in 1928 when she was fifteen:
Things I remember about my grandfather—John Albert Johnson:
He wore high top shoes, that hooked the last couple of inches. He was heavy set and brown skinned with a kindly, humourous face. He used to sit in the kitchen at 902 rocking in the rocking chair that had a slatted (lengthwise) back and a black and dark green cushion made of cut velvet. He'd sit there in the sunshine, puffing on his pipe talking to my mother who was moving around the kitchen either getting breakfast ready or fixing dinner, but always busy doing something and recount to her his adventures while he was a missionary bishop to Africa. These were their most enjoyable moments. Every once in a while he would spit into the coal scuttle, after removing his pipe from his mouth and I was always amazed at the great length he could spit without missing the scuttle or not get anything on the floor between the chair and the scuttle—it was a good five or six feet. Of course he always wore his black suit and his bishop's collar, and changed his hat according to the weather or the season. White Panama in the Summer and Black felt in the winter. He always wore woolen long john underwear (another thing that always amazed me), light weight in the summer and heavy weight in the winter.
I'd hear him talking to Mama about going to Durham to a conference (the seat of his diocese) and how long he'd be there and when he'd be coming back and he would recount to her all the politicking that would go on. They were always more like two chums or maybe a very close father and daughter rather than like father-in-law and daughter-in-law.
If Mama knew he was coming over from Philly, she would bake his favorite pie—gooseberry. He had not challengers—it was too tart for the rest of the family. Once in a while Grandma and he would come together, but most of the time he came alone for the day only or overnight, just came over to seeRollie and Alice, like he was catching a streetcar. He'd get on the train at North Philadelphia and come to Penn Station NY, over via the subway and streetcar (DeKalb Avenue trolley). Never would let Papa drive him to the station, always went back the same way, trolley, subway, train, home.
My great grandfather James Randolph Braxton was, according to my mother, part of the line that signed the Declaration of Independence through Carter Braxton. An octoroon born in Orange Courthouse, Virginia, he married Kate Townsend Bowers from Philadelphia, daughter of John Bowers of New Bedford, Massachusetts. They had five children, all native New Yorkers: the oldest my Great-Aunt Edith; the youngest my grandmother, Alice Elizabeth; and three boys in between.
James Randolph Braxton became a caterer and managed the dining room of Hanover Trust Bank in Manhattan. He was a prime officer of a Complimentary Dinner given in honor of Doctor Booker T. Washington by the Colored Citizens of New York and Vicinity, Wednesday, April 15th, 1903 at Carnegie Hall. Washington frequently conducted fundraising among the elite white patronage class. His demeanor while fundraising in the north depicts his moniker "the wizard" as he was known by supporters and enemies alike. Hence the following "minute" about James Randolph Braxton, unanimously adopted at a regular meeting of the Vestry of St. Philip's Church of New York, held on the 12th day of January, 1904:
The Vestry of St. Phillip's Church in the City of New York desires hereby to place on record in the following Minute its deep sense of loss in the departure from this life of James Randolph Braxton who died December 22, 1903—together with an earnest appreciation of his valuable service as a member of the Church and Vestry. Becoming a Member of the Church by Confirmation in 1882 Mr. Braxton was first chosen to the Vestry in 1888 and continued and active and useful member of that body until his death. In his special assignments as a member of the Cemetery Committee, the Music Committee, and the Church Property Committee, as well as in the general work of the Vestry, he exercised the same practical knowledge and ability, which contributed to his success in every day life, displaying as well an unflagging energy and unswerving devotion to the best interests of the Parish. Aggressive when the Occasion Demanded, he was open to argument and willing to subordinate his personal preferences if convinced that the plans of the majority could better serve the end to be accomplished.
As a working member of the Vestry his associates will greatly miss his hand and voice in the conduct of all affairs of the Parish, to which he brought such sterling qualities of Will and Judgment Resolved, that the above Minute be entered on the records of the Vestry and that a copy suitably engrossed be forwarded to the family of our deceased Member.
THE CHILD ALIVE IN THE MAN:
A meditation on Keats's "negative capability"
I learned early to take comfort in the stance of "the outsider." The cost of belonging was far too great. As a child growing up during World War II, I was caught astir in radical change. At home there was a kind of protection, but just outside the vestibule was "enchantment" and sometimes chaos. As the oldest of three I was trained to support my mother. My father was working in the Post Office and waiting to be drafted into a segregated Navy. He was also attending law school at night, working a swing shift, and trying to recover from the depression, which seemed to snare everybody.
Uncle Jack and Aunt Edie lived nearby. Uncle Jack was a dentist and had worked on trains as a redcap before graduating from Howard University. Aunt Edie took me on excursions: On the way to Macy's we stopped at the New York Public Library on 42nd and 5th Avenue. Her parents had promenaded around the reservoir (the library opened in 1910), as she was quick to tell me. Much as I loved being "in harness" on trips about the city, I also explored, early and often, on my own. Having a younger brother, precocious and adventurous despite his small size, I knew instinctively that one stayed on one's own when by oneself: within the prism of the forties I was a loner by disposition.
My exhilaration was riding the subways in the front of the first subway car: how an express train overtook the locals; how the city looked while crossing the Williamsburgh, Brooklyn, and Manhattan bridges; the three ballparks, Ebbets Field, Yankee Stadium, and the Polo Grounds. I knew routes of travel that took me to overhead stations where I had a view of centerfield, the bleachers, and, when lucky, the park. Baseball, during this period, was always on my mind, including the Negro Leagues, before Jackie Robinson "integrated" baseball. Prospect Park, Central Park, and nearby Tompkins Park gave me a sense of the city, what belonged to me as neighborhood, what neighborhoods were a frontier. I was entranced with how to place people, intuit their personalities, decode class warfare, gangfighting, neighborhood rivalries, ethnic migrations, how to cope with the police by blending in—or blending out—as the conditions demanded. Brooklyn was the nation's first suburb, and all the boroughs of New York were home to me.
I had to negotiate "the riff raff" in my own neighborhood, which was really a mélange of working class families: the Ippolitos, the father who worked "down-town" as a barber; Mrs. Tibetsky, who lived next door and whispered things under her breath, later to sell her house to an Olympic weightlifter; the Kellys, with whom I fought over the magic word; the Wibecans, who had two older boys; Muriel Burwell, the fastest runner on the block, and a girl; Snowball, who was a dandy teenage drug-connection; various venders and shop owners for whom I ran occasional errands; the nuns who rapped my knuckles at "religious instruction" and priests who coached, ran raffles, took confession, and visited in their parishes, which were not my own.
Portrait of Elroy Clark: He was from Jamaica, held the school record for pull-ups on any crossbar, and had the nickname (behind his back) "the gibbon." He was strong, probably the oldest student in class, and the school bully. He was the reason I got on the flag squad. You learned early, at P.S. 25, you could not fight every day as a Giant fan in a Dodger neighborhood, score in the 80s to appease your parents, master the Dewey decimal system, avoid gangfighting, and get along with your teachers without becoming a "volunteer," monitor, tattletale, freelancer, or jack of all trades, meaning a student who was not in an academic program. There was much hidden pressure on a kid of my ilk. Elroy and I made truce by my helping him with his homework.*
In 1951, the rookie year of Giant centerfielder Willie Mays, I graduated from P.S. 25. Had my family stayed in New York, I would have had options for schooling the following year, having managed to pass the Regents Examination for college preparatory. Instead, I went to school in Los Angeles, at Mt. Vernon Junior High. Though I made the honor roll academically, I was often ill with asthma, "unsatisfortory" in comportment, and went to sleep for the next decade—sleep being the condition that Ralph Ellison called "trained incapacity": a failure to live up to one's promise without sufficient school mentoring.
My parents had always wanted to go to California. My dad bought a house west of La Brea Avenue (the city was gerrymandered by race) after arranging a transfer with another postal clerk who wanted to return to Brooklyn. He left the family in New York while we completed our school terms, during which time he made inquiries into schooling for my siblings and found that St. Agatha's, the local Catholic school, was segregated. For the first time, my brother and sister attended public school: my brother was in the fifth grade, my sister in the third. When we arrived in June 1951, there were bombings on streets nearby, a neighborhood welcoming committee my parents did not discuss at the table. I secured a paper route with my eighth grade graduation money, bought a bicycle, and began to plan my exit from Los Angeles, a city with a series of concentric circles as arteries for traffic, but no civic center.
I was not academically challenged in the Los Angeles schools. I had taken the required standardized tests for academic placement and scored in the ninety-ninth percentile in all categories; yet my first day at Dorsey High School I found I was programmed into an "industrial arts" curriculum. I knew this would not wash with my parents. My father had to "visit" the school. The room we entered in Building B was marked "psychological counseling"; when we exited, my curriculum had been adjusted to include college preparatory classes. This was the summer of 1952.
The circle in a crescent in the courtyard of Dorsey High School was surrounded by eucalyptus trees. Other memories from my years in high school:
*At the first sock-hop held during lunchtime in the school gymnasium, Miss Mary Howard, the Girls Vice Principal, walked up to a couple—a black male and a Jewish female, boyfriend and girlfriend since junior high—and bodily separated them from dancing together. The music stopped, some stunned, the couple walking away, arm in arm. This was my last sock-hop, in the first week after my curriculum change.
*In civics class during my junior year the Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision was announced on my brother's birthday, May 17, 1954. There was no class discussion.
*Charlie Parker, the musician and saxophonist, died on my aunt's birthday, March 12, 1955, during my senior year. No one of my acquaintance knew who "Bird" was, though I'd listened to his music in alleyways as a boy off 52nd Street in NYC. After serving mass one Sunday morning, Bird had changed a quarter and given each of us kids a nickel; he was carrying his "ax" (instrument) in a doubly reinforced Macy's shopping bag (he hocked his case). When he got on the subway going downtown he said to us kids, "Don't sneak on the subway when you go home!" This must have been '48 because the nickel subway ride was doubled to a dime and there was widespread protest in "the apple"—the town I'd grown up in, and forever lost.
I graduated in 1955. What had I learned in high school? Keats affirmed the autonomy and integrity of poetry whose highest aim is to express beauty and discard lesser forms of knowledge. In a letter to his brothers [December 21, 1817], he used the phrase "negative capability" to refer to the ability of a poet to receive truth and beauty passively. Keats maintained that the poet must be "capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." The expression has since come to stand for a writer's objectivity, that is, an attitude of accepting whatever may be received while in a state of intense heightened awareness. In 1955, I knew I had not learned "aesthetic distance" or "objective correlative." At the time, I had not even read any Keats, nor Eliot, except on my own.
Though I am now in the "hall of fame" at Dorsey High School, where my portrait hangs in Building B above the room marked "psychological counseling," I do not remember ever having been in the library of the Administrative Building, Building A, until I saw the banner with colorful writing: "Welcome Home: Michael S. Harper." The reception was in the library, where I read my poems and talked about "literature being a study in comparative humanity," a definition I'd learned from reading A Thousand and One Nights, Invisible Man, The Waste Land, Leaves of Grass, My Bondage and My Freedom, The Souls of Black Folk, Up from Slavery, The Prelude, The Red Badge of Courage, and Moby Dick, none of them in the library or classroom at Dorsey High School.
What was I writing in those years? Doggerel! But, said Yeats, "in dreams begin responsibilities." Poetry chooses you: you do not choose it. You must be your own spiritual father: Go to college! Work in the Post Office! Richard Wright worked in the Post Office; so did my father, in the registry. Some of the world's smartest people are working in uniforms. You must believe in the letters of John Keats, who died at twenty-five with very small output, but maker of the sonnet: bear with me: who know that on the lower frequencies I speak for you. Said Gwendolyn Brooks, the bard who gave me my career: "Dear Michael: some of the best lessons in the democratic order are not necessarily intended; citizenship and literacy are metaphors: hold on!" Mentoring and the lack of it is not necessarily deliberate, or with deliberate speed.*
IT IS THE MAN/WOMAN OUTSIDE WHO JUDGES:
The college years
I had no mentoring at the high school level; the college counselor at Dorsey High School also taught social studies. Instead I had three wayfaring stranger friends: Dale Roos, Leroy Strand (both white), and Edward Chapman who lived in my neighborhood. Roos and Strand were both interested in American Legion baseball. We came together on the baseball diamond. For a time we were coached by my father for a semi-pro basketball team. My parents were democrats: they fed everybody, including my friends, and I had to be home for dinner every night.
Strand had a Ford station wagon. Chapman came to my attention because I had a local paper route and had to collect for the afternoon paper; his stepfather, John Bowers, was a postal clerk. Eddie cut the lawn and was a diver on the local swimming team. This was a swim team that featured Bella Lugosi's son, Bill, as the champion sprinter (imagine our comments on Dracula's son swimming sprints). Since I had my route after school I seldom stayed for meets, but Eddie and I became friends. He was a half-year ahead of me in school, and friendly. The friendship blossomed into my taking the city lifeguard test, though I was not a particularly good swimmer.
Lifeguarding taught you the social hierarchy of playgrounds, city politics, and good jobs at reasonable pay. You swam a quarter mile, four laps in the Olympic pool at the Coliseum where the '32 games were held; you raced against a stopwatch, and had to retrieve a dummy in the deep end of the pool, seventeen feet deep. There were few black lifeguards since guards worked by neighborhoods; there was a quota in the city. I was assigned South Park in the black ghetto. I set up a program to arrive early and teach every kid within reach how to swim, on my own time; this was better than dragging them out of the deep end after leaping from the diving board without a thought of what to do when they hit water.
After high school, Chapman and I attended Los Angeles City College. I was a premed major and ran into Dr. Bell, who taught zoology. I was taught to use the microscope and to count somites for the professor, a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley who specialized in nematodes and somite-counting. He encouraged whom he liked; I was seventeen, green, and "in his opinion" never going to get into any medical school. He whispered this in my ear. He also did this to George Siegel, a classmate and jazz lover who'd gone to Fairfax High. Soon Siegel and I were friends, miscounting Bell's somites, giving him false numbers, our lessons on mentoring and discrimination fully learned. I ended up with 120 units at LACC, worked either full or part time in the Post Office, and took all the science and liberal arts courses I could manage.
I eventually transferred to Los Angeles State College, housed on the same campus on Vermont Avenue, and commuted to the new campus on the San Bernardino Freeway. Les McCann, the piano player, was in residence; so was Don Bishop, a great end who turned pro; the sculptor Mel Edwards from Beaumont, Texas. Another transfer student was Otis Smith, who played basketball in Oregon and ran on the Olympic team in the 400 meters. The fraternity teams were better and more fun than collegiate competition. What I most enjoyed was pickup tennis, which I taught myself while watching Pancho Gonsález, the pro tennis star, give free lessons in the park adjacent to the Coliseum. I learned to serve by mimicking his delivery, taught to any kid who had an eye for rackets and white tennis shoes.
I met Lena Horne's son, Ted Jones, on the tennis court near USC; his father, a Republican, lost his job when John Fitzgerald Kennedy won the presidential election. The senior Jones taught us much on the facing table in the Post Office at Terminal Annex. The tour superintendent was a "gaubee," a nickname for creoles light enough to pass for white and move up in the postal hierarchy. Bertineau was the head of my tour as he checked badges at the time clock. Each clerk had a margin of six minutes to check in: 5:42, or 10:24; if you were late you were docked a half hour. Part-timers worked a maximum of six hours; full-time often earned you overtime, and split days off. The best of us liked graveyard so we could attend school in the mornings before sleeping; we worked weekends to study during the week. During the fifties—what Robert Lowell called "the tranquilized fifties"—you lived with Ike "with all deliberate speed" postponed in the "integration" charade. The poet Sterling A. Brown, whom I came to meet in the sixties on the UC Berkeley campus, used to quip in his analysis of American literature as a problem in race identity that his methods against stereotyping were "critical realism." I heard none of this at college until I read, on my own, The Great Gatsby, whose muted character, witness to the crime as it happened, a black male, did not comment on the action. Fitzgerald was then and now called "a jazz novelist."
In the Post Office I met many a Ph.D. who could not get a job in the open market. Many other clerks and mail handlers preferred the benefits and the overtime, storing up their annual leave for better times. The best worked in airmail where the conversation was sparse but timely, and they could study the world in stamps. We paid much attention to the athletes and musicians who broke the various color-lines. We heard Miles and Coltrane when they appeared at the Palladium theatre downtown. We knew, for us, the musicians were always the pioneers, from Mingus to Dexter Gordon, some of the best players playing background for Hollywood. We studied the unions, our own postal union, and the teamsters, who specialized in keeping us out.
As a transfer student I met two writers with doctorates from the University of Iowa's Writers Workshop: Wirt Williams, who'd written a war novel, The Enemy, which was praised by Hemingway; and Henri Coulette, a local who replaced Thomas McGrath, who'd lost his job because he was a Communist and did not succumb to U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee. Luck landed me in both their classes. An idea was planted. Then I met Christopher Isherwood an English novelist who lived in Santa Monica. He did not think that writing could be taught, but encouraged any writer to "produce." I was writing plays, one-actors, about musicians who were speakers of the idiom I loved most: black American male speech, full of curse words. Isherwood encouraged me.
One night I'd worked graveyard and not gone to bed. The course was "Literature between the Wars," and the first book, Goodbye to All That. Isherwood sometimes brought his friends to class. This morning he looked up at me and said "Mr. Harper, would you like to ask our distinguished guest any questions?" A man in slippers, with a heavily lined faced and deeply hung over, stood in the front of one of the recital halls in the newly built music building. With "exile and cunning" I asked our guest if he'd mind reciting "Sept. 1, 1939" for us, and Auden recited, without text, for forty minutes.
The young woman next to me, who'd never spoken, whispered a hearty compliment in the form of a question: "You must be the smartest person in class?" I was. I'd been to the bookstore the day before and purchased a copy of The Shield of Achilles—with Auden's picture in the flap.
From then on, Heard, Spender, Lancaster, Laughton (Isherwood's next door neighbor), and Mr. Brave NewWorld, Aldous Huxley, came often enough that I was fearful of missing class. And I began to think differently as I wandered through the open stacks of the library, reading at will, long before there were any black history or black literature courses.
I graduated from Los Angeles State College in December 1960. Richard Wright had just died in Paris. I was aware of the passlaw protests in Sharpeville, South Africa and applied for a passport. I also knew something about Dien Bien Phu and what De Gaulle said to Eisenhower about land wars in Asia. I received a draft notice, having been deferred for several years as a student. I went to my three writing teachers: Williams, Coulette, and Isherwood, applied for the Athens of the Midwest, Iowa City, seat of Hawkeye football (Iowa had just been to the Rose Bowl, which I had attended) and packed my '54 Chevy with all my records and books for wintry Iowa and the Writers Workshop. I got as far as Needles, California and found I'd burned five quarts of oil. I returned to Los Angeles and flew to Chicago to connect with Ozark Airlines and the mailrun into Iowa City.
Upon my arrival, I met Paul Engle, director of Iowa's SUI Writers Workshop, and was told immediately to "go meet Mrs. Lemme," who rented rooms to black musicians and entertainers. Her husband owned a shoeshine shop on the main street in town. But JFK had just been elected (my first presidential vote), and I wasn't about to be gerrymandered in Athens, even if it was Iowa. My life changed without my books, records, and wheels. Here I got my moniker, "The Padre."
Notes on the Iowa Writers Workshop; Blues & Laughter (thesis); The Drake Relays, Fort Madison; Irene Kenney's 3.2 beer and Emlen Tunnell, equalizer, Calvin Jones, and Connie Hawkins; Oliver Jackson, painter, and Lawson F. Inada, poet; or, how to write a petrarchan sonnet on Paradise Lost; horse-trading with Paul Engle (we were the horses!).
I met Lawson Inada in Iowa City in January, 1961. I was about to leave town when I was approached in Kenney's Bar; was I "Mike Harper from LA State, Henri Coulette's ace student?" When I nodded in veiled apprehension, Lawson greeted me, invited me to a table with a pitcher of 3.2 beer, ordered some popcorn, and played one of two jazz tunes on the paltry juke box: "Moanin'" by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise" by the MJQ. By the time I'd drunk my first draught I was introduced to the town and had an apartment across from the police station: a black composer, Alan Pike, had just finished his doctorate in music and left town; his roommate, a medical student named "Doc" Marsh from Fort Madison, Iowa (and Parsons College) was looking for a roommate. Lawson invited me back to his place, where he bunked with two roommates, for an improvised dinner. It was twenty-eight degrees below zero on the bank clock on the corner of Iowa and Washington. "Checks cashed here" was my thought, attributable to Ellison's Invisible Man. Lawson showed me the bookstore with December magazine; in it was "The Big E's" interview, "That Same Pain, That Same Pleasure."
We were two minorities at Iowa's SUI Writers Workshop that season. Most of the blacks were athletes or graduate students (mostly foreign), who stayed in the dorm. To get an apartment meant "you had to know somebody." It was Lawson, already baptized by a semester of workshop, who gave me my sea legs. He also had the best record collection (jazz blues) in town. I'd left mine in LA, along with my books, when my car broke down. I always thought I could have nursed that vehicle with a few gallons of oil and the prairie speed of fifty-five miles per hour and was full of regret that I hadn't tried.
Lawson was hatless in the cold as we walked to his flat for dinner. When we arrived his roommates, Dick Bagge from Nashville and Johnny Hodgkins from Mineola, were there to greet us, two graduate students in English. Lawson went to the store for supplies, and while he was gone the two conversed between themselves. Lawson cooked us a meal, and then escorted me to 419 East Washington Street to meet Donald Marsh. As we walked, I filled him in on the conversation. At twenty-two I was in short supply for venomous talk, and after I was introduced to Marsh, whose landlady was a "liberal" Jew who lived in Des Moines, collected the rent by mail, and never visited, I thought to myself that Lawson might get an apartment in the same building.
In two days the room next door was vacant, without furnishings, and Lawson moved in. We went to Salvation Army nearby for throwaways. Within a day I was listening to his tunes through the thin walls. His selections were good enough that I sometimes let my own recordings lie fallow, unplayed. One day I was listening and heard a knock on the door; when I opened it, there was Lawson with a stunned looked on his face. "Man, what is that on the box?" he asked pushing me aside. I handed him the album cover, "Kind of Blue" by Miles Davis. "Kiss My Ass" he said with emphasis, "a two-sided record" as he walked out. Later I asked him how many copies of "Kind of Blue" did he own? He said "three, but I was scared to turn it over."
That was how we lived during the winter of '61 in Iowa, fearful of turning over our favorite records for possibility of letdown. Workshops were on Monday afternoon among the barracks close to the Iowa River; on the other side were the art buildings, with an art bridge linking both sides. Later that spring, Iowa and Paul Engle celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Iowa Workshop with a special anthology called Midland. The other highlight was the black-and-white film, A Raisin in the Sun, written by Lorraine Hansbury. We saw that movie over and over again.
Our classmates in workshop were Strand, Wright, Bell, and Rutsala (who knew Alan Pike). I was in Philip Roth's fiction workshop, with a seminar in contemporary fiction—nine units of coursework from the newly anointed National Book Award winner in fiction for his collection of stories, Goodbye, Columbus. Though Paul Engle was the director we knew we were there to study with Donald Justice, whose The Summer Anniversaries had just won the Lamont Poetry Prize. The Heart's Needle by W. D. Snodgrass had just won the Pulitzer Prize. Because of Coulette I'd read them all, along with Lowell's Life Studies and a Rhyming Dictionary I'd borrowed from Henri on "off days" from the Post Office.
Lawson was not in any clique at Iowa. A student of Philip Levine, he'd come to Iowa from Fresno. He did not speak about his "camp experience"; this was typical of Japanese Americans, sans generation, who'd spent time in the "relocation" centers, a euphemism for concentration camps. I'd had classmates in LA who were equally silent "among the eucalyptus trees" at Dorsey High School.
My moniker, "The Padre," came from the athletes I tried to corral in to the library to study and write their assignments. We would gather in the Gold Feather room in the Iowa Memorial Union which had an upto-date jukebox. Iowa had eight starters and a black quarterback, Wilburn Hollis, from Boystown, a team expected to return to the Rose Bowl the following fall. Many of these black stars lived off campus; one group in 20 West Harrison, leased to the Athletic department; Hollis and two other blacks lived together underneath my apartment on Washington; behind me in a single was a defensive back from Chicago.
We began to feel at home, even though we were across from the police station and close to the Mee Too market. A barbershop, which we couldn't go into, was next door. Most of the blacks cut their own hair at 20 W. Harrison, or you could take your chances at the Memorial Union at high prices. I spent my time in the library, reading the graduate theses of my competition in fiction and poetry. The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams had been rejected, according to rumor, in the forties. The high water marks were Flannery O'Connor and Engle himself, who had been a Rhodes scholar from Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Engle went out of his way to tell me he'd judged contests with black winners: Gwendolyn Brooks and Margaret Walker in particular. I knew Brooks had won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for Annie Allen and Walker the Yale Younger Series prize for For My People, selected by Stephen Vincent Benet. Walker was now working on her Ph.D. with a novel called Jubilee under Verlin Cassill, studying with him on the manuscript in the summers. Cassill twice sent cabs for me to attend parties at his residence for "west coast poets" that he thought would make me feel comfortable: W. H. Auden and Denise Levertov. I missed both parties because they were on weekends, as I specialized in being out of town, even without a car, on Saturdays and Sundays.
Most poetry written at the time was in rhyme and meter; a few experimented with accentuals and syllabics, but the worksheets distributed before class were a sign as to whether you were "in" or out. I was young, and like my favorite musicians gathering their chops, "woodshedding" (to use a jazz artist's term), practicing in the library and not announcing my whole cards, for writing was to me like gambling.
3.2 beer was the state law, and liquor was bought in state-licensed stores. I was too poor to hang out. A few times I visited the graduate students who lived in the barracks. The conversation was literary, meaning full of gossip, but these were quarters for folks with families, wives and children, and I had neither. Publishing in the magazines, the quarterlies, and particularly for high pay, was unusual. The previous semester, Esquire had held a symposium with the new writers apparent: Baldwin, Philip Roth, and Norman Mailer were the young lions, and workshop people talked about "what I had missed" with an arrival mid-year. Paris would stifle Iowa City, and since the draft board was worse than the IRS, I took my Army physical in Des Moines soon after my arrival. The prospect of an alternative lifestyle in the military kept me in the library reading. The buildings were overheated but warm and stayed open until 2 A.M. I got to know the special librarians and the best places to study: I read my competition.
Midland had its twenty-fifth reunion just before I had to leave town for the lifeguard exam in the L.A. Coliseum for a summer job. I had papers to write, books to read, and fiction and poetry to frame, and I knew, compared to the competition, I was green. I first realized it in a seminar on contemporary writing: Joyce, Gascar, Singer, Golding, and Celine were all on the reading list; each student in the seminar had to select a title, write a paper, bring it to class, read it aloud, then wait for criticism—in writing—soon afterwards. I knew, as a newcomer, I should get my feet wet early, so I volunteered for Golding's The Lord of the Flies. I would give the first report and take my lumps. At the time I'd read all of Golding, four novels and no criticism (the only article was published in the Partisan Review in '57, the same issue with James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues" in the bound back issues, and it was missing from the Iowa Library). I read my twenty pages on Golding's Lord of the Flies with annotations elsewhere and waited for my paper to be returned.
Weeks went by, and I made an appointment with my professor to ask about another work: an eighty-page novella about an adolescent caught serving mass in the local church, dreaming of catching his enemies, which included a nun, a priest, and the elderly bishop in gratuitous compromise. It was all fantasy, reminiscent of the "confessional" and Joyce's meditations from Stephen's Hero and The Dubliners; but the experience was mine. I'd been an altar boy, served mass, knew the rituals, even disguised the places which I thought too "autobiographical," too Irish, too Catholic. I also wanted my paper back on Golding. My professor was quite candid in his evaluation: the paper was a B-with no commentary; the novella was awful. Where had I copied these ideas? Did I know about plagiarism? I'm sure I smiled a cunning, equivocal response as I rose easily out of my chair.
Later, I wrote him a note about Isherwood's copies in the library with notes from study about the fable; not to mention Baldwin's missing classic "Sonny's Blues," perhaps the best short story written about a jazz musician and his brother. Then I ran into him and his wife en route to dinner in the Memorial Union. She invited me along, saying, "I'm certain my husband might like to talk with you about black and Jewish writing." I replied: "Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924; I was born in Brooklyn in 1938; all black people don't know each other." I tried to suggest this about Malamud and Bellow, Mailer and Roth, as writers challenged to be themselves in an ethnic category. "I didn't come to Iowa to compete with anyone," I added. "And I can't afford to eat out. But thanks for asking."
That professor and I never spoke again. I continued to attend classes and workshop sessions. The night before I flew out of Cedar Rapids I was working on my last paper. When I got my grades from the registrar I found he had given me nine units of "C," presumably intended to drive me out of the M.A. program. It didn't.*
I returned in the fall to finish my classes, including one seminar with John McGalliard in "the history of English language," the tone of it more linguistic than historical. It was administered by Coulette in the Los Angeles State College library after I left Iowa City from Marion—by train because the airport was frozen solid in freezing rain. I spent the fall selling pennants at Iowa home football games to make ends meet and living in a converted garage behind a black family on the outskirts of town near the A & P market, 9 Prentice Street, so small that the hide-a-bed made it impossible to walk anywhere. I offered this arrangement to Johnny Hodgkins after we were both temporarily housed in a downtown hotel with no windows. We slept in total darkness to the smell of rancid popcorn. That fall I met Oliver Jackson, the painter. I spent little time on workshop matters, other than course attendance and reading. I finished my thesis, Blues & Laughter, on the innovations of lineation in the blues form, no doubt heavily indebted to Langston Hughes.
That spring, I came to defend my M.A. by written examination. The results were posted in one of the English buildings; the exams were taken over two days, Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, lasting six to eight hours each. I wrote on Yeats and Ellison as role models, and I passed. My mother invited Mr. Isherwood, who had come to visit my home after my bad time with the professor in my first spring semester. "Would Michael be returning to Iowa to complete his studies?" Isherwood had wanted to know. My mother was serving up "tea" in her best china, "Ish" watching her antics about the room in the tiny stucco house. "Oh, yes," she answered. "Michael will return to Iowa to finish what he started."
My first publication was a poem I wrote for Billie Holiday published in December magazine. I cut it to one stanza in Dear John, Dear Coltrane, selected by Gwendolyn Brooks in manuscript, though I'm certain Lawson Inada is responsible for the idiom by his great blues and jazz collection. Lawson would sneak off to the gutbucket speakeasies of Molene and Davenport, the Quad Cities, to hear live music. He once altered a Nehru jacket by adding three extra buttons to his short collared blazer and wore those pointy shoes, first cousins to the stiletto boots that fast ladies wear. We went together to the Drake Relays to see Wilma Rudolph, Ralph Boston, Muhammad Ali, all Olympians, and ate Mexican food with Ramon's family, classmate of Donald Marsh. To witness Wilma Rudolph run the curve in any stadium, Rome or Des Moines, is a great pleasure; to eat the first real Mexican food in Iowa was "perfect" cuisine; to see Connie Hawkins dribble and announce a world truly changing was pioneering.
I refused to hold hands with the students gathering to sing "We Shall Overcome" for the freedom riders who were traveling to campuses to raise money for Dr. King. It took Birmingham, Alabama on television to make me fully consider the philosophy of "intentional suffering," even after reading Gandhi and Thoreau. The invisible battle we fought in classrooms to hold our aesthetic positions against the odds of conformity and misalliance was a kind of miseducation. My skills as the Padre were a masking of an increasing respect for literacy, for doing one's own thinking and feeling, and most importantly, for learning the elements of poise and eloquence "in the act of composition." As Lawson was my witness in fear of turning over "Kind of Blue" to find "Flamenco Sketches" and Oliver Jackson dictating his dissertation while listening to Bird and Beethoven, the Padre ends this section with a fragment, but a fragment saved, Lady's Blues:
We visit bark
an unmarked grave,
no stone your voice;
we kiss the air.
Coda on cliques, jobs, the turn in the ninth line of the Petrarchan sonnet: I was a prodigy playing ping pong as a Boy Scout in Los Angeles and made Life in my hopes to become an Eagle Scout. The scoutmaster was white, although most of my scoutmates were black and Mexican. We used to camp at Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear in summer, above the heat and among the trees, trying our stroke and our knots and "staying out of trouble," until the time another troop of white scouts showed up at the Arrowhead swimming pool. One white kid said the magic words: "nothing but spooks and wetbacks in this troop, and none of them can swim," and Leonard Macias, cousin to Loyo (both Mexicans and neighbors), challenged him to a fight. It went on for about an hour until Leonard, who would die rather than quit, finally won. The scoutmaster stayed out of the picture; merit badges and the Scouts' honor—trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful—died that afternoon. We swam in the too-cold water, and let ourselves out into the world of what Joyce called "a scrupulous meanness."
I was always wary of my classmates, on and off the court, in any swimming pool, whether playing pool or ping pong. We talked to banter our transition to manhood; and we pulled our punches among our friends and colleagues. In the academy, and in the workplace of jobs, there is a "hierarchy of talent"—nowhere the Golden Rule! In singing "We Shall Overcome," the students at Iowa, mostly from within the state, had few opportunities to test their racial tolerance or their mettle, though historically more citizens of the state had lost their lives defending the North in the Civil War than any other state per capita. Black Hawk, the marvelous Iowa chief, had his annual powwows at the high bluffs in West Des Moines, at the confluence of three rivers; Waterloo had a black population because blacks were recruited as strikebreakers. Just beneath the surface were prejudices of hawkeyes that were evident everywhere. With so small a population of blacks in Iowa City, why was there no fair housing law against discrimination? Why were you followed by out of town farmers threatening you as you walked from the library? I had stopped any notions of gang-fighting, not to mention hazing, as a boy because I had a hatred of animus for strangers. In most situations I was "the stranger." Certainly this was true in Iowa, especially in small towns, but even in Athens there were encounters.
In class you were expected to "hide your thought," and I did so. One night I went to a speakeasy in Fort Madison with my roommate; there was a jukebox, and for $1 you could buy real fried chicken. A game of poker was in session in an adjacent room, and before I knew it a fight broke out over cheating: the dealer of the hand had a gun drawn on him; he was shot through the shoulder during the encounter and flipped back in his chair like a strawman in a tornado; the sound of a.45 caliber was deafening; someone called an ambulance; people left the building; and a woman with a drink asked me a question: "Youngblood, how's the writing program in Iowa City?" She worked in a turkey factory, was a friend of Marsh, and wanted to show me her writing, at her place, if I had the time and interest. My first poem called "turkeyfeathers" began to percolate and come into existence.
Later there were more trips to small towns, a little offbeat, with good chicken: not the theory and praxis of pornography or plagiarism and not the chatter of "good reasons for real ones," the pulse of rationalization I'd been taught as excuse for excellence on the Post Office facing table while studying a scheme or learning the codes. Would I have had a different lesson plan had I had a series of black teachers instead of white ones? Would the mentoring have been different? Would my dossier from student teaching be different? Why did Lawson's roommates feel it was permissible to talk about him behind his back as a Nippon when he'd gone out to shop for a meal for them? Why had so many of the students demonized each other for such small returns? I ask rhetorically as one ends a sonnet with a rhetorical question.
In Donald Justice's Petrarchan sonnet written on demand by John Berryman for a workshop class in the fifties, a poem about the Garden of Eden with some knowledge of Genesis and Paradise Lost, there is this addition to the text cited, what the poet adds to a living convention in the struggle from verse exercise to literary poem: "As for the fruit, it had no taste at all." What Justice added to the conceit of the Garden of Eden lexicon! I was intrigued by this artistry. The people who sang the spirituals demonstrated it as well, illiterate as they were in bondage: "I don't know why my mother wants to stay here for / this old world ain't been no friend to her."
What I had learned in Iowa City was "psychic distance and independence." As Sterling Brown said to me in another era: "It's a wise blues that knows his father." And I was lucky to know mine. Blues & Laughter, my apprentice thesis, could not be found in the Iowa Library. I'm certain I would have profited from eating at Mrs. Lemme's table and sampling her cooking and company.
"I been down so long that down don't worry me!" For this Padre: it didn't.*
"For in our culture the problem of the irrational, that blind spot in our knowledge of society where Marx cries out for Freud and Freud for Marx, but where approaching, both grow wary and shout insults lest they actually meet, has taken the form of the Negro problem."—An American Dilemma: A Review, by Ralph Ellison
When I was a teenager, my father bought a 1956 Pontiac Bonneville, brand new. It was our first new car as a family. The decision was made to visit Brooklyn and East New York in a trek back and forth across the country. I was eighteen, with my own agenda, mostly in the form of a paper route of 550 daily and Sunday Los Angeles Times home delivery; the job took me ninety minutes, including the folding, for in the Baldwin Hills neighborhood of the time, every other house received the paper. Most folks paid by mail and the clientele were almost entirely white. At the top of a hill when the route was finished you could watch the Pacific Ocean, overlooking the local reservoir, as the sun rose over your shoulder. I lost that route because of the family vacation, and I was not happy about it. But my grandparents and Aunt Edie and Uncle Jack had to see us. My grandfather, my father's father, was dying of cancer of the stomach. He was still working as a waiter part time and helping raise a granddaughter. My father, the second of five, was the most venture-some, having moved to California. The oldest and youngest sons were absent or out of reach. This was not talked about openly. There were plans to adjust accommodations for the elderly, and my parents were too far to preside or offer much more than support.
My father and I did most of the driving. We stopped in Rock Springs, and had our first encounter near Provo, Utah, when the family went shopping for supplies in a local market. We were, as an entire family of five, stared at and, since the store was almost empty, followed by several clerks. My mother, who was a witchdoctor and comic, talked openly of conversion: she'd always wanted to study the Mormon bible, and she said so to any clerk nearby. They backed off. Next we stopped in Cleveland to visit my mother's sister, Alice Elizabeth, whom we called Aunt Liz. Her husband was Uncle Ernie, a medical doctor: Brown, Phi Beta Kappa, '35, and medical degree from Case Western Reserve. We didn't stay long enough, given the spaciousness of their house on East 97th Street compared to our bungalow, stucco-style, in Los Angeles.
My parents were preoccupied with timing on a two-week vacation, with three hungry teenagers squashed in the backseat. I loved driving the new car and "being responsible." When we visited the old neighborhood of Brooklyn, 816 Lafayette, where Aunt Edie and Uncle Jack still lived, it had changed: one-family houses had been subdivided; across the street, at P.S. 25, my alma mater, was a ghetto school. This was too brief a visit, and more than disturbing. The private conversations among the adults were not easily shared. My sister, then thirteen, had no memory of her early childhood, and our brother, Jonathan, at fifteen wanted to explore, ride the subways, venture out; I was to keep him in harness. He also wanted to drive, and could, though he didn't mention this to our parents.
We took another route back home, and when we crossed into Iowa on Hwy 30 West, we stopped for breakfast in Iowa City. There was talk of the Amana community and the eating of real Iowa ham. The five of us disembarked from the Pontiac four-door and spread out at a long counter, waiting for menus. The young girl in an apron stood and stared for perhaps two or three minutes; then her mother burst from the kitchen, menus in hand, and moved her daughter into action. A spell was broken. A black family looking for breakfast was not an everyday event, even in summer. We ate without incident and talked about our reception in the Pontiac all the way to Council Bluffs, across Omaha, and into Nebraska. We overnighted in Cheyenne, all of us restbroken; my father decided to drive, nonstop, to Los Angeles. Whether to save another night on the road in a motel or gain an extra day in our own home before returning from vacation I can only guess, but I was at the wheel for most of the night, my father more than exhausted, and I with the youngest reflexes was aware that a misstep would be fatal for all. We arrived at 4 A.M. I'd had a first reckoning about duty, jobs, and sacrifice. Underneath the surface of this trip was an epiphany for the poet still very much a boy; certainly not a man.
I went out next morning for a substitute paper route in another district, another office. Irony upon irony, I didn't consider a return to Iowa City in less than five years. I had not visited the Capitol, famous in Iowa City, or toured the campus, though I knew about the university because of Calvin Jones, the best lineman in America. When black families toured about the country by car, lodging was a main subject if they weren't visiting family, and routing was determined by distance and "trouble," for those who weren't railroad men with connections, or blessed with a large family spread out across America. "Geography is Fate"—Heraclitus.
So is miseducation. From my time as a teenager I knew instinctively I wanted my own inventory. I bought my own clothes, maintained a part-time job, either a paper route or cutting lawns, saved my money, and went to local schools which cost next to nothing. I could work full time and supplement my work schedule with classes; all my classmates went to school and worked. The Post Office paid the best, but my friends worked for the State and the Gas Company, some for the County, and jobs seemed bountiful despite discrimination. I stayed in school, but I took examinations for the county, civil service, and even corporate testing, like IBM. I had a certain aptitude for testing. Once I scored high enough for the sheriff's exam that I was asked to take it again. I scored even higher the second time, qualifying for jobs I did not want, such as surveyor and city planner.
From the Iowa experience I began to see a void in mentoring, and because I had no teachers of color, other than my family, the inevitable came to light, this time in the form and tenor of a "dossier." After Iowa I put one together at LA State College, where I enrolled to get a junior college credential, a program in education that would allow me to teach. There was a student teaching component, arranged by the education department. When it came my turn there was no position, no mechanism: I was the first minority student who needed placement. Finally, after six weeks in the term, I was assigned to Pasadena City College and given a "master" teacher. I was sought out by some of the students. This was the campus Jackie Robinson, the most famous athlete in a generation, still holder of the broad jump record of twenty-five feet, had put on map. On the first day driving up Fair Oaks Boulevard I saw a sanitation truck and a man working a manhole. He was instantly recognizable to me as Mack Robinson, Jackie's older brother, '36 Olympian in the 200 meters, right behind Jesse Owens. I pulled over. "Mr. Robinson, it's an honor to meet you. I'm about to student-teach at PCC. This must be my lucky day." Robinson smiled. Then he pointed to my coupe and told me I'd better move it, I was blocking traffic. He went down the manhole, underground. Already, I was mapping my comings and goings in and out of Pasadena, which had some good Mexican restaurants, a small black community, a few I'd visited at casual parties, "a long way from home."
I went to Coulette asking him to check the contents of my dossier, to see what was the matter with my letters of support. He was fearful; did not have tenure; worried about being "monitored." This was his first job since Iowa graduate school. I found out another way. As an undergraduate I'd been on committees for fair housing and voting registration; Coulette himself had canvassed for the Democratic Party in Pasadena. I went to the president of the college, a Mormon, with evidence that my dossier had broken the state law by mentioning "race" in several letters. Dossier expunged. We started over. When Kennedy died by assassination I was wrestling with "intentional suffering" as a philosophy, as well as a stance of behavior, a mode of conduct. W. S. was being filtered into a larger canvas of how to combat "white supremacy" as a permanent condition: something historical but not properly framed in one's daily life as a system of values. I read Dr. King, applying his tactics, north and south, east and west, as good moral training, as tactics, and as trust across the "liberal imagination" of my college readers, from Trilling to Hayakawa.
The Freedom of Information Act gave confirmation to my political ruminations; the books I'd read in seeking credentials academically had consequences in the world of unions, teachers and postal, and in democratic protest. Since I was a letter-writer who kept copies and maintained my own files, I learned to pick and choose my arguments. All fights were unwinnable; you had to be selective. I asked little of my elders and less from my teachers. Race and class were at the heart of it, I'm sorry to say. Luckily my "master" teacher at PCC did not monitor me closely; he had his own problems. Dr. Geyer, chairman of English at LA State College and an expert on Emily Dickinson, made his assessment in writing. I had never been his student in any classroom. "Mr. Harper has to learn but thoroughly, that being a negro (sic) is not as bad as he supposes. Once free of this sensitivity he will be a good teacher."
The resonance of Mr. Ellison's "file and forget" was fully internalized by this comment in my dossier. I found it difficult to teach full time, and taught occasionally at LACC at night. My charges were older immigrants whose experiences were deeper than mine, by decades; I taught them grammar and basic compositional skills: I asked them, in their own idioms "to tell me their narratives." And I struck gold.*
A friend suggested I take a test for work with IBM, writing manuals in their headquarters, Poughkeepsie, New York. I scored higher than any liberal arts major who'd been examined, the ninety-third percentile, and was tested again. Ninety-sixth percentile. I was asked to fly to New York on a round-trip ticket, and interviewed that winter in the snow. I was asked a provocative question: had I ever been arrested? I had. End of job interview. But a classmate from LACC and LASC was working as a counselor at Wiltwyck School for Boys in nearby Esopus, New York. Soon I was hired, at very low pay but with room and board. I stayed for three months.
Wiltwyck was an experiment in housing delinquent and sometimes abandoned boys from the five boroughs of New York, ages eight to fourteen. On the campus was a 600 school, a cafeteria, campus housing, and maintenance, including weekly visits from social workers and monthly visits from psychiatrists. My unit housed twelve boys, including three brothers from the same family. The expectation was "custodial" in the main, with a volunteer Mennonite crew to provide transportation. Other volunteers from Bard and Vassar Colleges came to campus to offer crafts. Sometimes we had runaways, whose "psychiatric" files I read in the evenings. I put together a working portraiture of my charges, assuming the obvious. Most of the time it worked, but staff meetings with social workers and psychiatrists were mechanical; our insights were mostly ignored. We did not make policy but instead were treated like the children—as custodial attendants.
I spent days off with my friend, John Stewart, commuting to the city to hear John Coltrane and his famous quartet: at the Half-Note, Cork 'n' Bib (Westbury, Long Island, where my aunt and uncle lived), Birdland—any available club or concert hall where Trane was playing, for this was a special time for spectacular, unmatched playing "live." Only this time I was inside the club and not in the alley. "Bird Lives" was the graffiti of the fifties in the village on 52nd Street. Now it was "Trane Time." A poet interested in sonics is blessed when he has an equivalency to where he wants to go; Coltrane provided that message, by analogy: a love supreme! This was not the region for ideologues. I was not a black nationalist or a believer in radical thought. I was interested in an approach to people which recognized their beings as art forms.
After Wiltwyck, I was lucky to get an instructorship at Contra Costa College in San Pablo, California. My students were the children of Richmond and San Pablo, with little tradition of the book but willing charges. Trying to move up the food chain in the Bay Area is difficult though: I wanted to live in San Francisco and commute thirty miles in each direction and listen to live music every night in the city, but I had four course preparations. We decided to have a poetry series, invite local poets: Philip Levine (Fresno); Isherwood if he would travel; Coulette for sure.
Bob Chrisman and I were hired together; he was a student of Josephine Miles and had edited the San Francisco State Poetry Review. We advertised in our classes with mimeographed poems of the readers, including ourselves. When my reading came, Chrisman taught "Elvin's Blues" as instance of the "dramatic monologue" but not in the idiom of Robert Browning. Elvin was Trane's drummer, an artist-complex, darker than any entertainer. I was smart enough not to teach my own poems, and not to select that one; one of Chrisman's students made annotations in the margin of her copy and tossed it on the kitchen table, saying to her mother, "look what they're teaching us in English 119." From there to Max Rafferty, the Superintendent of Education in Sacramento; then a call to the school president, Dondero, a retired Navy man. By messenger in the English office I was told not to report to my 10 A.M. composition class but instead to proceed directly to the president. I obliged. I also thought about Ginsberg's "Howl" and the controversy of teaching a "pornographic" poem on a conservative campus. President Dondero had not seen the poem and asked for a copy. I refused. What was the purpose of his memo to me? What about my ten o'clock students? Chrisman, unfortunately, was the culprit: he had taught the poem, and was asked to defend it in the form of a written exegesis, which was quite accurate and eloquent, as I remember. The administration was angry and scared; I was not. I wanted my paycheck, the whole year's pay, and my walking papers. Did I want to be monitored by incompetents? Or worse?
This was 1964. Trane was playing every night at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco; "A Love Supreme" was the record of the year. A truce was called: I went on alert with the union; found a lawyer; and understood, as for the first time, the delicacy of "community values." Living among poor whites and poor blacks in a town with a liberal black mayor, the Black Panthers were soon to surface; the Berkeley campus was immersed in the "Free Speech Movement" with Mario Savio giving speeches; the Richmond Shipyards, which had provided munitions during World War II and later, were now defunct; Vietnam, the consequences of the War on Poverty, and a draft of the nation's youth were one complex ball of wax.
I was at Contra Costa four years, teaching across the curriculum: the first Black history course with seating capacity of 130 in the Music Hall. One day I walked in to borrow the keys for the grand piano from the music department head. Unlocking the keyboard, McCoy Tyner sat down with Roland Kirk's rhythm session; they played for two hours. Legend was made; attention spans were exploited; I provided transportation; the concert was free.
I was also publishing poems in magazines: Poetry, Southern Review, Quarterly Review of Literature, Black World. I was living in the city I wanted to nest in, living in the fogbelt between City College and San Francisco State, with side trips to Stern Grove, "The Spinnaker" (Sausalito). My landlord was a Mexican who did repairs.
STRONG IN THE BROKEN PLACES:
Publishing, teaching (do no damage if you can't be helpful), preaching: out of opposition comes unity: "The blues ain't nothing but a po' man's heart disease."
I was teaching in Portland, Oregon in 1968, having thought about moving to Canada after Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination. Lewis and Clark College and Reed College were my baptism in close-up politics: I counted ballots in the recount for Senator Wayne Morse and read "Biafra Blues" at a mass reading against the Vietnam War, sponsored by Ginsberg and Bly. My wife was pregnant with my fourth son, the second and third among the deceased; I had memorized "After Long Silence" by Yeats as an anthem to the long haul, "the wild prayer of longing"; I sang "Trouble in Mind" as if I believed it; strong in the broken places: "I've been down so long that down don't worry me."
I had been to Mexico and Europe, bought a Volvo which I picked up at Schipol airport in the Netherlands, and toured eight countries while my wife suffered "early morning sickness" in and out of camps and makeshift B&B's with and without our Michelin tourbooks. I had visited friends on the road, witnessed aspects of a "world" revolution, and taken my first "leave of absence" from a tenured position with no intention of returning to my post. I was thirty, believing that anything I might compose as original would be conceived and executed by thirty-five; all else after that, in the Hemingway manner, would be repeating myself. I began to write the poetry of an adult. It began to dawn on me how much my father had accomplished without announcing how hard it was to provide. The support and maintenance of a family was an abiding priority, and parenting never ended. Teaching was an extension of parenting, and mentoring was guesswork, promissory and not without watchfulness and preparation. Mistakes were opportunities; otherwise how could one go on, since being ubiquitous was not an option.
Mark Spilka, chair of English at Brown University, and a D. H. Lawrence scholar, called to ask me to attend the MLA in Denver: Would I interview for a job at Brown and pay my own way to the convention? I had no experience with the politics of the academy, but the students in protest had changed the contours of demography and representation in a national debate. I told Spilka, without arrogance, that I thought it a bad idea to pay my way to a convention (to interview for a job I had not asked for). He asked, could I suggest an alternative to Denver between Christmas and New Years? I suggested he invite me to the campus and told him I'd keep in touch. I did know that Brown was in Providence, even though San Francisco was my favorite city. William Stafford and Vern Rutsala were fellow poets on the faculty. I would be replacing Rutsala, whom I'd met at Iowa; he was at Minnesota, replacing John Berryman. I was freelancing at Reed, teaching two courses, advising poetry thesis students, learning to adjust to the "city of roses," and waiting for a healthy son to be born.
Meanwhile, Philip Levine had suggested that I submit a manuscript to Wesleyan University Press, his publisher. I was told, rather quickly, "Wesleyan already has its black book"; they'd contracted Clarence Major's Swallow the Lake, his collection about Chicago. Levine, to his credit, cautioned me not to sit on the manuscript, send it right out; I submitted it to the U.S. Poetry Award sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Stafford mentioned his editor, Ann Harris, as another possibility at Harper and Row. I bided my time as I processed "the Morse Recount," the presidential run for nomination by Eugene McCarthy, the aftermath of the riots in cities across the nation.
Somewhere between "Middle Passage" by Robert Hayden and "For the Union Dead" by Robert Lowell I was studying the literature of the U.S. Civil War with closer attention: not Whitman, Melville, Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, not Dickinson or Frost, but kinsmen, and kinswomen. I was working through the aesthetic and political conceits of my own poetic protocol: how to place myself and my ambitions into a framework that was true, progressive, unequivocal on race and sex, a landscape with fresh space for a loner uncomfortable in any group. One begins by trying not to lie to oneself about one's abilities. My first lesson was the title of my first manuscript, Black Spring. I knew about Henry Miller's prose book (one hesitated to call it a novel) by the same name. Mine was a poem, composed around a certain thematics. I was entering the stage of manhood where one's rhetoric is sparse, like the blues, and candid in contour and resonance. I tried to hear every word in a poem, an aural logic I'd learned by listening to singers, to musicians, and to phrasing, a lineation or organizing in increments without preaching and without too many roadmaps. One had to trust one's reader, which begins with the self.
Then I received a letter from Gwendolyn Brooks, whom I'd never met, with an envelope sent to my parents in Los Angeles. The letter was written on peach paper. My mother called with the news. "Mom," I said, "haven't you put the letter in the freezer?" This was how she opened letters she wanted to read and reseal without letting on she knew the contents. This was a form of monitoring, or parenting. She laughed. "Open it, Ma." She read the first sentence with emphasis: "Dear MSH," spelled out. "YOU WERE MY CLEAR WINNER" in caps. The other judges for the U.S. Poetry Award were Robert Penn Warren and Denise Levertov. It seemed I hadn't won the 2K, but I suggested we wait we hear some news from the press. A few days later I got a telegram. Although I hadn't won, Pittsburgh wanted to publish. I consulted Levine and a few others. So much of this particular world was timing. I thought I was lucky with Brooks as a reader "finding" my manuscript in a slushpile. I had to move my family and gamble on a change of venue. Was this luck or hybris? I was still too green to know. I taught my classes, moved my family, played the odds of moving away from composition and "dangling modification," and towards writing and literature: a mind is a terrible thing to waste (on my tongue and jowls), the ad admonished.
In April, 1970, I was in Time magazine with Jesse Jackson on the cover. Ralph Ellison's cover essay, "What Would America Be Like Without Blacks," was the framing principle. Dear John, Dear Coltrane was nominated for the National Book Award in Poetry, one of nine. I was famous for fifteen minutes, thanks to Gwendolyn Brooks, who gave me my career, small as it was.
Without the presence of blacks, our political history would have been otherwise. No slave economy, no Civil War, no violent destruction of the Reconstruction, no K.K.K. and no Jim Crow system. And without the disenfranchisement of black Americans and the manipulation of racial fears and prejudices, the disproportionate impact of white Southern politicians upon our domestic and foreign policies would have been impossible. Indeed, it is almost impossible to conceive of what our political system would have become without the snarl of forces—cultural, racial, religious—that make our nation what it is today.
What was most salient in Ellison's words was the notion of the nation perfecting itself by inclusion, not assimilation of the black man.
After fifty-one years, the poet and essayist Sterling A. Brown returned to Williams College where he learned how to think, edit, and write, not to mention "teach." He spoke at length about teaching and "critical realism."
I am an integrationist, though that is an ugly word, because I know what segregation really was. And by integration, I do not mean assimilation. I believe what the word means—an integer is a whole number. I want to be in the best American traditions. I want to be accepted as a whole man. My standards are not white. My standards are not black. My standards are human.
Two poets from Detroit—Hayden and Levine—have been good to me over the years. Levine read his poem "They Feed They Lion" aloud in my San Francisco backyard before it was published. It mastered the speech and idiom of "the unlettered" who had given their energy to the factory system at Ford and Cadillac, at his brother's supply shop. Hayden, poet of "paradise valley," the slum section of St. Antoine Street, refused to write about the Detroit riots over the decades. Instead, he steeped his ballads in folklore learned on the Federal Writers Project, like Sterling Brown, Gwendolyn Brooks writing reports for the Chicago Defender in her teens, or Ralph Ellison taking notes on sanitation workers who also loved opera, resources of the nation's underbelly in regional backdrop for "gumbo ya-ya" (everybody talks).
For more than three decades I have had access to the non-lending library of the "Harris" Collection in the John Hay Library at Brown University. I send my charges into the "Lincoln" collection for the best evidence of why and how our best politicians wrote their own campaign speeches: including the Second Inaugural. I have learned much from students, old and young, more intellectually gifted than I am. As one annotates one's career, one should remember the nuances of e-mail, the new archives, substitute for Keats's Letters.*
The titles of my books, and editing projects, with brief annotations are my still unfolding portfolio, what I view as works in progress, a kind of continuum:
Dear John, Dear Coltrane:
An interdisciplinary connective to other art forms; the title poem derived from "the Sam Hose" (Trouble in Mind) documentations from that blues song, and the references that Litwack provided; "a love supreme" the only answer to "intentional suffering"; "another brother gone" the only mantra to Biafra Blues);
History Is Your Own Heartbeat:
Narrative and lyric modes; appropriation of the nine muses as storytelling devices; the African continuum writ small;
History as Apple Tree:
A nine-part poem, in the manner of the nine muses, as welcoming committee to my daughter's birth;
Song: I Want a Witness:
Detroit, 1967; the testamental church and the civic glossary;
"Neither victim, nor executioner"—the healing of national wounds, from John Brown, to Richard Wright, to Dwight Johnson, Congressional Medal of Honor winner;
Nightmare Begins Responsibility:
Heartwork for kinship ties, large and small;
Images of Kin:
New and Selected Poems, a miscellany;
Chant of Saints:
A Gathering of African American Literature, Art and Scholarship; interviews with Walcott, Ellison, Morrison, Jones, Forrest; essays on Bearden, Coltrane, Silas Bowens; poems by Hayden, Sherley Anne Williams; co-edited, with essays, by Robert B. Stepto; an upgrading of The New Negro landmark tome, and dedicated to the example of Sterling A. Brown's pioneering efforts at literacy and folklore;
On Ralph Ellison, with John S. Wright, co-editor, documenting the festival of Inman Page's student, the Big E.;
Special issue on Robert Hayden, poet laureate of "American Journal" and "Words in the Mourning Time";
Healing Song for the Inner Ear:
Poems expanding on "intentional suffering";
Collaboration with Walter Feldman, artist;
Every Shut Eye Ain't Asleep:
Co-editor on African American Poets and Modernism (with Anthony Walton);
Poems assembled as alternatives to the 3/5th clause of the Constitution and "Bill of Rights" and theory of prosody in the republic;
Songlines in Michaeltree:
New and Collected Poems, with notes and commentary on "songlines" as archeological remnants;
The Vintage Book of African-American Poetry:
With Anthony Walton, 250 years of black American poetry and poetics, with headnotes, selected bibliography;
Use Trouble (in press):
Poems on artistic ancestry and visionary artmaking as indentured unforced labor;
The Homework of Heartwork:
Notes on "the weary traveler" as spiritual striving; laureate of the local; documents of affection; the lost art of devotional mentoring; democracy and unintended benefaction: citizenship.*
I came to Brown University in 1970 because of Professor Charles H. Nichols. His Many Thousand Gone, the first dissertation at Brown in the Humanities '48 was an inspiration. It gave nuance to the life and times of many of my ancestors, including James Randolph Braxton, from Orange Courthouse, Virginia, one of the patriarchs of my poetic timeline.
Howard Swearer appointed me to the Israel James Kapstein Professorship in English in 1982. I did not know "Kappy" personally (he'd retired in the late sixties), and was a promising novelist, teacher of Coleridge, and visionary teacher. I felt no guilt about this appointment but would have preferred the Martin Luther King, Jr. chair in the university. I spoke to several of my colleagues who were deserving of such acclaim, including Mark Spilka, who hired me. President Swearer called me while I was in resident at the University of Alabama (Tuscaloosa) and asked me to carry the mace as the university macebearer. I did so with pleasure, because of my admiration for him as a selfless leader in education, nationally. He was an early exponent of national service, himself the first volunteer.
President Gregorian made me a University Professor. He also made me a literary lion in the New York Public Library. I served as the first poet laureate to the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, 1988-1993, and wrote a poem for Senator Claiborne Pell as an early Pell recipient. Senator Pell was one of the early exponents for the National Endowment for the Arts, and for the protection of our environment, particularly our oceans. I recommended to President Swearer that Richard Yarde paint a portrait of Inman Page, first black graduate, and class orator of the class of 1877. Dr. Page was the school principal at Frederick Douglass High School in Oklahoma City during Ralph Ellison's boyhood. The watercolor study of Dr. Page's portrait was given to Mr. Ellison at the Ellison Festival in '79 at Brown; Barry Beckham, novelist, and George Bass, playwright, were also seminal faculty contributors.
I have had the opportunity to teach what I wanted, and be taught by the best of students, among them Gayl Jones and Melvin Dixon, Anthony Walton, Herman Beavers, Rachel Buff, Rebecca Wangh, the best and the brightest.
After 9/11 "all changed utterly," as I was monitored for the first time by an exchange student who, looking for classes in registration period, called my office, leaving messages, never announced herself, complained to her parents, all unknown to me, and had me called in, by e-mail no less, to defend my teaching praxis to members of the administration, a first in my experience since Max Rafferty and "Elvin's Blues" at Contra Costa College.
What is my purpose for telling this tale, with written annotations in my personal files, which might end up in the university archives, should my papers prove valuable (and Yale doesn't get them—they've asked). We are losing our protections of free inquiry, if accusers can make accusations in anonymity. I am not shamed so much as the institution is shamed when "hysteria" can manifest, even under duress: I realize there was duress. Not the first time I've been accused of reckless behavior by my syllabus. Lincoln had to shelve, for a time, habeas corpus, and I haven't been arrested; not yet. Meet Life's Terms But Never Accept Them.
The names of my books and editing projects are meant to upgrade and extend "Juneteenth," the last outpost in the U.S.A. for the freeing of the slaves in Galveston, Texas: June 19, 1865. General Granger read Lincoln's order, since some of the soldiers and many of the slaves could not read the proclamation, which was written, at least in part, as antidote to idleness. The slaves built many of our monuments, without compensation and without acknowledgement. Begin with the Capitol and proceed to Monticello. Not very far from Orange Courthouse, Virginia; part of the family, but unacknowledged as builders of the country. Intentional Suffering and Honorable Amendments is where this poet lives: "Let the doing be the exercise, not the exhibition"—I been down so long that down don't worry me. The slaves were "beneath the threshold of social hierarchy" but not without a significant contribution to the folklore and American language we continue to utter; even before the values of the country were written down, "the spirituals" were being incorporated into our lexicon. Many Thousand Gone (but never forgotten). "In Love and Service Evermore"—The Merchant of Venice.
The Myth of Music
(for my father)
If music can be pass on
like brown eyes or a strong
left hook, this melody
is my inheritance, lineage traced
through a title track,
displayed on an album cover
that you pin to the wall
as art, oral history taught
on a record player, the lessons
sealed into the grooves like fact.
This is the only myth I know.
I sit on the hardwood
floors of a damp November,
my brother dealing cards
from an incomplete deck,
and I don't realize that this
moment in the definition
of family, collective memory
cut in rough-textured tones,
the voice of a horn so familiar
I don't know I'm listening,
don't know I'm singing,
a child's improvisation
of Giant Steps or Impressions:
songs without lyrics
can still be sung.
In six months, when my mother
is 2,000 miles away, deciding
if she wants to come home,
I will have forgotten
this moment, the security
of her footsteps, the warmth
of a radiator on my back, and you
present in the sound of typing
your own accompaniment,
multiphonics disguised as chords
in a distant room, speakers set
on high to fill the whole house
with your spirit, your call
as a declaration of love.
But the music will remain.
The timeless notes of jazz
too personal to play out loud
stay locked in the rhythm
of my childhood, memories fading
like the words of a lullaby,
come to life in a saxophone's blow.
They lie when they say
music is universal—this is my song,
the notes like fingerprints
as delicate as breath.
I will not share this air
—Rachel M. Harper
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 7, 1977, Volume 22, 1982.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 41: Afro-American Poets since 1955, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1985.
Harper, Michael S., and Robert B. Stepto, editors, Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1979.
Lerner, Ben, To Cut Is to Heal, Paradigm Press (Providence, RI), 2000.
O'Brian, John, editor, Interviews with Black Writers, Liveright, 1973.
African-American Review, summer, 2002, Keith D. Leonard, review of Songlines in Michaeltree: New and Selected Poems, p. 342.
Black Iss, March, 1999, review of Every Shut Eye Ain't Asleep: An Anthology of Poetry by African Americans since 1945, p. 23.
Booklist, February 15, 1994, Donna Seaman, review of Every Shut Eye Ain't Asleep, p. 1054.
Hollins Critic, June, 1976.
Library Journal, November 1, 1995, Rochelle Ratner, review of Honorable Amendments: Poems, p. 68; February 1, 2000, Frank Allen, review of The Vintage Book of African-American Poetry, p. 90.
Los Angeles Times, January 21, 1987.
Nation, June 21, 1980.
New Republic, May 17, 1985.
New York Times Book Review, March 5, 1978; October 13, 1985; February 4, 1996, Elizabeth Gaffney, review of Honorable Amendments, p. 16.
Parnassus, fall-winter, 1975.
Poetry, December, 1973; November, 2001, John Taylor, review of Songlines in Michaeltree, p. 105.
Publishers Weekly, November 27, 1995, review of Honorable Amendments, p. 66; February 7, 2000, review of The Vintage Book of African-American Poetry, p. 72; August 28, 2000, review of Songlines in Michaeltree, p. 79.
Saturday Review, August 8, 1970.
Times Literary Supplement, May 30, 1980.
Virginia Quarterly Review, autumn, 1970.
World Literature Today, winter, 1981; winter, 1986.
Yale Review, October, 1973.
Academy of American Poets Web site,http://www.poets.org/ (December 3, 2000).