Dec 14, 2013

It's Your Soul to Keep

This morning, I read the blog of a man whose marriage was ending. He was crushed, devastated, reviewing where he'd gone wrong. He was advising other men, and that was thoughtful, but ... he seemed not to know himself. Among other things, he said he should have given his soul to his wife. Whooaaaaa! What? Was that his anguish talking?

Is that what a woman wants of a man: his soul? What would that leave him? No, love does not demand that. It saddens me that people are so insecure, so afraid to search their own souls for self, for truth, for peace, for joy that they wrench it out of someone else. Take their soul? Tracy Chapman sings about it:

"Oh my mama told me/'Cause she say she learned the hard way/Say she wanna spare the children/She say don't give or sell your soul away/'Cause all that you have is your soul ..." 

Oct 5, 2013

You've Got to Learn ... and You Will Live

To My Students: 

A good life doesn't mean you will always win, you will always be right, you will always get what you want, you will always be the best, nor that your money and/or education will buy you anything. (Read up on "teachers' salaries" and "government furlough.")

So, here are some lessons offered up by Nina*, lessons many adults seem reluctant to teach you. (Secret: we're still learning these lessons ourselves; it never stops.) Nina sings:
"You've got to learn to be much stronger, sometimes your head must rule your heart. You've got to learn from hard experience, and listen to advice -- and sometimes pay the price."
And, students, you WILL live, and your life still will be real, real good! 

(*writers Charles Azvanour and Marcel Stellman)

Sep 9, 2013

“Fruitvale” forces refreshed view of Metrorail’s young, black riders

A few Saturdays ago I sat in an area movie theater clutching my stomach as the film “Fruitvale Station” moved to its conclusion. With sudden impact, the vulnerability of young black men choked me, a high school teacher who has seen many young men removed from the student body for acts that were disruptive, threatening, or violent – or were perceived to be.
“Fruitvale” recounts the early hours of New Year’s Day 1999 in Oakland, Calif., when 22-year-old African-American Oscar Grant and his friends were ordered off a subway train after a fracas in which they were involved but did not initiate, as the filmmaker has depicted it. Even knowing how the film would end, I found myself hoping one of the strangers on that subway train would vouch for Oscar, give him their seat, speak up for him, hide him, do something to help him elude the transit police, to get back to his family, to enable his desire for a life do-over.
Detained by the police in the subway station, the young men put up a vehement verbal resistance, declaring their innocence and their rights, and cursing the police for flagrantly strong-arming them. Forced to lie face down on the station floor, Oscar was shot in the back by one of the officers. Hours later, he died at the hospital.
Filmmaker and director Ryan Coogler does not show what happened in  the weeks that followed those horrible hours, the reaction of Oscar’s little girl, the community’s protests, the trial of the transit officer who said he had meant to engage his taser gun, and who was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, not murder.
Coogler wants America to see, really see, Oscar Grant, and perhaps to begin seeing other young black men.
The film made it easy to pull for Oscar, depicted as a young man with a natural capacity for random acts of kindness. Spliced into the good, however, were a criminal record and a capacity for doing whatever it took to survive, including dealing drugs.
Yet, viewed through Coogler’s eyes, Oscar’s hard outer layer was not nearly as durable as his gentle core.
Why didn’t the people on the subway train see his core? Why didn’t the police? How did they size him up, and how quickly?
Those nerve-wracking subway scenes took me back to a rush-hour experience on D.C.’s Metrorail a few weeks earlier, a moment that left me skeptical about black people’s commitment to the “it takes a village” wisdom. Had black people in America come to see – as others had -- every young black man in the public space as threatening? At what point had we decided that they are not our business? And why had we?
The Tuesday before the George Zimmerman verdict, a young African-American man, about 16, boarded an evening rush-hour train blasting the music on his Mp3 player. Some passengers exchanged looks of aggravation and disgust. One well-suited black man looked as if he wanted to say something. A briefcase-carrying black man put in his earphones and stared at the floor. The kind-faced black man across the aisle smiled uncomfortably. The sick-and-tired-of-it woman next to me said Metro police were never around when you needed them.
But what if they had been? What if police had escorted the young man off the train? Sure, we all would have breathed a sigh of relief, but would we also have felt sorry for this boy? Feared for him?
Maybe these riders didn’t want to risk a confrontation. Whichever tone one takes in addressing a stranger in such a situation, the fear of being shot is real, given the frequency of gun violence in America.
 I forced myself to give the teen the benefit of the doubt. Catching his eye, I pointed to my ear and said, “Your music is loud. Could you turn it down, please?” He turned it down -- slightly.  
Five stops from the end of the line, he got off. I was frustrated. All the talk about taking back our communities and saving our black boys, and all we could do was sit seething, shutting out the noise, and wishing for the police?
The young man’s lack of responsibility might have cost him a run-in with law enforcement, or his life. However, our silence might have cost him a sense of belonging to a larger community and a lesson in self-discipline.
As we attempt to vindicate the unjust loss of our children, undoubtedly we will teach the children still with us to be more thoughtful in guarding their freedom and their lives. Moreover, maybe it’s time we adults refresh our view of the young black men we encounter in public, to balance our fear with our hope, to talk to them, to try and see their core.

Jul 10, 2013

After the Trial

If Mr. Zimmerman is not convicted, those of us who will be angered, pained, and frustrated will need to gird up our loins, to stand on “civility,” and to keep in our line of sight the “big-picture goals,” as Kymberly says in response to my friend Sonsyrea’s prayerful post on FB.

Speculation is spreading: There will be riots. I will pray that African Americans, in particular, will tap into a certain righteousness that is ours to claim. In our anger and frustration, we can get weary but we can’t linger there. Too much work has been done and there still is too much more to be done, too many children to love and teach and save, too many people to love and feed and respect and enjoy. 

If we are outraged over the pending verdict, we can stand and march and protest and challenge injustice and inhumanity, but we cannot use violence. We have to re-direct our rage toward some uplifting, cleansing, progressive action -- civil, humane, spiritual, poetic -- be it in a private space or a public forum. We cannot use violence.

We will learn to own our citizenship, to claim it without shame or apology or heads hanging low, to know that we don't have to earn it or prove it.

Jun 29, 2013

Paula Deen, Nikki Giovanni, and Grandmothers: Free Association on a Saturday Morning

I woke up with Paula Deen on my mind because my sister and I were on the phone last night discussing that situation, and I think I might want to write something about it. I haven't sorted it all out yet, so I was making some notes toward that end.

But then I completely shifted gears and picked up my copy of Nikki Giovanni's My House. I always find kinship and solace and humor in Nikki, although sometimes she's over there and I'm over here. I wasn't looking for Nikki to provide answers or clarity on Paula Deen, don't go thinking that. As I said, I shifted gears. 

When I looked again at the first poem in the book, "Legacies," I thought about my mother's mother and her Sunday dinners, and I also thought, but not in a hostile way, that I don't need Paula Deen to teach me about good eating.

"i want chu to learn how to make rolls," the grandmother in the poem calls out to the little girl on the playground.

"i don't want to know how to make no rolls." the little girls calls back.

"lord these children," the grandmother says.

Open this link to read the entire poem -- 

Jun 25, 2013

On Meeting Gwendolyn Brooks

I met Gwendolyn Brooks in the late '80s, at a reading at the University of Maryland. It was a Friday evening, I think. She read a poem I hadn't known, one I felt she'd written for me right there on the spot. 

At the end of the reading, Len Bias walked out from the wings and presented the poet with a bouquet of yellow roses. Bias was a local basketball star whose on-the-court greatness at the University of Maryland had made him a recent top-draft pick in the NBA. I'll never forget how proud and boyish Lenny looked when he handed Gwendolyn Brooks the flowers. I think he was wearing white with yellow accents, including yellow socks, looking very '80s-stylish. A few weeks later, I would spend all of one morning and afternoon sobbing uncontrollably in my office, wracked with sadness after hearing Donnie Simpson announce to WKYS listeners that Len Bias had died of a drug overdose. But that evening on stage with Gwendolyn Brooks, he was so typically graceful.

When the the program ended, I approached Ms. Brooks in the lobby of the auditorium. No one was talking to her. Why not? Were they insane?

I found her to be earthy and kind and unassuming. A person who'd walked into the lobby just then would have thought she -- ambling without the slightest sense of self-importance and wearing a grandmotherly sweater -- was a member of the audience.
I mentioned the "hair poem" she had read, and she asked if I would like her to mail me a copy of it.  

On a slip of note paper I wrote down my address. I handed the paper to her, and she put it inside her sweater pocket. I hid my disappointment. I knew that once back home in Chicago, she'd forget all about me and that piece of paper inside her pocket. Months later, she'd pull that sweater out of the closet, put it on, find my name and address in her pocket and wonder who in the world Avis Matthews in Maryland was! 

I was sure of that until about four weeks later, when a brown envelope arrived in the mail. My name and address were on the front in big, broad handwriting. On the flap of the envelope was a plain, white return address label: Gwendolyn Brooks, 7428 S. Evans Ave., Chicago, IL 60619.


Opening the envelope, I pulled out a light blue booklet: "Primer for Blacks." That slip of paper had been placed inside the front cover. Under the name and address that I'd written down standing in the auditorium lobby was this note, written in the same handwriting that had addressed the envelope: "See page 12." There on page 12 was the poem: "To Those of My Sisters Who Kept Their Naturals -- Never to look a hot comb in the teeth." I was blown away!

Never to look a hot comb in the teeth.
Gwendolyn Brooks

     I love you.
     Because you love you.
Because you are erect.
Because you are also bent.
In season, stern, kind.
Crisp, soft -in season.
And you withhold.
And you extend.
And you Step out.
And you go back.
And you extend again.
Your eyes, loud-soft, with crying and
     with smiles,
are older than a million years.
And they are young.
You reach, in season.
You subside, in season.
below the richrough righttime of your hair.

You have not bought Blondine.
You have not hailed the hot-comb recently.
You never worshipped Marilyn Monroe.
You say: Farrah's hair is hers.
You have not wanted to be white.
Nor have you testified to adoration of that
state with the advertisement of imitation
(never successful because the hot-comb is laughing too.)
But oh, the rough dark Other music!
the Real,
the Right.
The natural Respect of Self and Seal!
Your hair is Celebration in the world!

May 25, 2013

That James Baldwin Smile

In the spring of 1986 I went to the Library of Congress for a reading by James Baldwin. After the reading and discussion, all of us admirers crowded the table where he sat, tired but patient and good natured.
     As I inched closer to the table, a space opened between some of the hips, backs, and arms in front of me. In that space, James Baldwin and I caught each other's eyes. He smiled THAT smile, just a warm "Hello, there" kind of thing. 
     Is he looking at me? Oh, God, he is! Smile back! I already was, and he caught it. Then the space was filled again. 
     When I finally got up to the table, I was too awed to say anything but "Hi!" I was grinning and on the brink of gushing. 
     I didn't have my book with me, for some reason that I can't remember. I would have had him sign The Fire Next Time. I had a small stack of note paper with me. He signed: "For Avis, Peace, James Baldwin." I thanked him and hesitated, really wanting to say something else.
     But I didn't. I was sure I'd gush, maybe make no sense at all. And he was tired and people were waiting. Okay, just go. That's enough. James Baldwin likes youuu! 

 The wonderful Audra McDonald sings the Baldwin poem "Some Days"  (music by Steve Marzulo) on her new CD and in her new PBS concert "Go Back Home." 
Some Days (For Paula)
by James Baldwin

Some days worry
some days glad
some days
more than make you
Some days,
some days, more than
when you see what’s coming
on down the line!

Some days you say,
oh, not me never ⎯ !
Some days you say
bless God forever.
Some days, you say,
curse God, and die
and the day comes when you wrestle
with that lie.
Some days tussle
then some days groan
and some days
don’t even leave a bone.
Some days you hassle
all alone.

I don’t know, sister,
what I’m saying,
nor do no man,
if he don’t be praying.
I know that love is the only answer
and the tight-rope lover
the only dancer.
When the lover come off the rope
the net which holds him
is how we pray,
and not to God’s unknown,
but to each other ⎯ :
the falling mortal is our brother!

Some days leave
some days grieve
some days you almost don’t believe.
Some days believe you
and you won’t.
Some days worry
some days mad
some days more than make you glad.
Some days, some days,
more than shine,
coming on down the line!
©1983, 1985 James Baldwin

May 16, 2013


There must be something coming,
something purely good,
something lasting,
something revealing,
soul satisfying,
something with answers.
A truth.
an open door,
a prize,
a gift,
a smile,
a nod,
an assurance.
we go on 
living afraid –
of failure,
of humiliation,
of mundane life
and meaningless death.
Why would God allow that?
© Avis Matthews

Apr 30, 2013

Baldwin Insight

"If you move out of your place everything is changed. If I'm not what the white man thinks I am, then he has to find out what he is."

Apr 27, 2013

Prince of Tides

"But it is the mystery of life that sustains me now. I look to the north, and I wish again that there were two lives apportioned to every man -- and every woman."

Apr 13, 2013

Some Kind of Black Man

A good black man. We hear and say that so much. An intelligent black man. A working black man. 

Black women use these phrases as if such persons are so rare that the adjectives are necessary to specify and distinguish the good/intelligent/working from the less desirable breeds. No, I get it. That IS why black women use these phrases. 

This bothers me. We make these specially labeled black men the exception, and we tell the world that there's something so wrong with black men as a whole that we have to certify them. 

Suggestion: How about we replace those worn-out testimonies with this one: "Now there goes a REGULAR black man!"

Jan 20, 2013

A Heart Full of Grace

On the eve of President Barack Obama's second inauguration and the commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr.'s life and work, I am re-posting an article that was published in The Root a year ago. To view on the Washington Post web site, open link at bottom of article.

The Root DC Live!
Posted at 09:44 AM ET, 01/13/2012

Jack Johnson, MLK, Barack Obama: owning our citizenship in 2012

As we settle in and start to get comfortable with 2012, I find myself trying to temper a still-simmering anxiety over several 2011 events that got under my skin, leaving this nagging question pounding inside my head: What is going on with my people?

Jack Johnson (C), former Prince George's County Executive, walks to the U.S. District Courthouse before sentencing in Greenbelt, MD on December 6, 2011. (Sarah L. Voisin - THE WASHINGTON POST)
First, there was the criminal conviction of Jack B. Johnson, the two-term executive in Prince George’s County. Putting aside Johnson’s thievery and his blow-off of the public’s trust, I submit the reaction of the many Prince Georgians who defended Johnson with sanctimonious clichés about forgiveness and redemption, even while Johnson continued to present a non-repentant and deceptive public posture.
Then there was the happy-hour sage who suggested to my brother that criminal corruption by elected leaders was a fair trade for the political power African Americans have enjoyed. Without full support, the sage advised, “we” could lose the county executive’s office, and “we can’t have them telling us what to do!”
It’s hard to know where to begin picking apart that warped thinking. At the very least, this individualistic rhetoric ignores the legacy of family and community that gave black Prince Georgians a strong sense of culture and connectedness long before Jack Johnson resided within our boundaries – and which could move us beyond the money-worshipping, status-seeking limbo we now symbolize. The legacy of the Jack Johnson administration is not to be treasured or honorably memorialized.
Which leads me to Martin Luther King Jr. and President Barack Obama. On October 16, the National Park Service dedicated the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. On two visits to the monument, I watched the proud and respectfully subdued reactions of visitors as they posed for pictures, reverently circled the stone image and read King’s words inscribed on the statue and surrounding wall.
“What is it grandmommy? came an inevitable question. I thought about how we as a people will answer that question in the years ahead, and of what this monument will become to African Americans. With King preaching to us from this hallowed plaza, I got excited at the thought that he might again spur us into action.
Only a few weeks earlier, Troy Anthony Davis had been unjustly executed in Georgia. Occupy Wall Street protests were blasting the nation’s shameful economic disparities, even while being dismissed by some blacks as irrelevant. A number of states were advancing legislation to undo hard-won voting rights.
Now, with King’s powerful presence on the National Mall, would we at last be shaken out of our civil rights movement reverie, out of our false sense of having arrived, and spurred into action to push further for peace and social justice? Or would King’s monument become just another stop on the black history tour?
During the dedication, as one of the speakers addressed the crowd from the podium, the jumbo screen showed a live shot of the Obamas taking a private tour of the monument, which was out of view of the crowd. Reacting to the image on the screen, a few in the crowd began to chant: “Four more years, four more years!”drowning out the speaker, who had been invited to the ceremony to honor King.
Granted, the Obama presidency has brought to fruition the hopes, dreams, and perseverance of King and probably every single person of African descent who ever called America home. Yet, as the chants waned, another question surfaced: Are we so enraptured with President Obama that we are making this presidency itself a monument? Among black folks, sensitivity to criticism of the president’s positions and policies is constant and increasing. A frequently expressed fear is that black criticism of the president will cost him re-election.
However, those of us who cried, hugged, and fell on our knees the night of the Obama election should not let this demonstration of our electoral power be the complete victory. This could be the era not only of the first African-American president but also of unprecedented engagement in democracy among African Americans, a time when we fully take hold of our democratic privileges to speak up, engage, and dissent. Electing a black president and placing the full weight of progress on his shoulders robs him of the benefit of an aware and engaged citizenry. Our history in America notwithstanding, it is time to own our citizenship, not just in symbolic ways but in the tangible, change-making things we do to keep humanity moving forward.
I am worried and hear myself lamenting, What is going on with my people? So, a few weeks ago when radio station WPFW asked its morning listeners to call and share their thoughts on the question, “What‘s on your social justice agenda for 2012?” I thought, You should say something. This is where I start.
Avis Matthews Davis is a high school history and government teacher in suburban Maryland. She has been a public relations director in local government and was an editor at the former Journal Newspapers.

Jan 18, 2013

‘Pullman Porter Blues’ reveals America’s racially-charged past and present

My opinion piece was published by the Washington Post on The RootDC Tuesday, January 15, 2013.

The Root DC Live!
Posted at 01:03 PM ET, 01/15/2013
‘Pullman Porter Blues’ reveals America’s racially-charged past and present

Larry Marshall as Monroe, Cleavant Derricks as Sylvester, and Warner Miller as Cephas in "Pullman Porter Blues" at Seattle Repertory Theatre, which recently ended its run at the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. (Chris Bennion - Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater)
“I feel like I owe you an apology,” said the 70-something white woman who sat next to me in the theater for two-and-a-half hours. We'd chatted a little about the expense of metered parking in Southwest Washington. Now the show was over.
“Apologize? Why?” I asked. She hesitated.
Sensing her angst, I thought, Oh, no.
Oh, yes.
Sweetly and with visible embarrassment, she said: “I want to apologize for being white.”
It was playwright Cheryl L. West's “Pullman Porter Blues,” playing its final weekend at Arena Stage, that prompted this conversation. Through three generations of Sykes men — grandfather, father and son — audiences come to know what life might have been like for the African-American railroad stewards working on the Pullman sleeping cars in the 1930s.
The meticulously uniformed and ever-solicitous porters served first-class passengers round the clock. “While the work was grueling, the salary meager, and the hours nearly endless, most porters valued the job and many passed it down to sons and grandsons,” Seattle dramaturge Christine Sumption noted in the program book. “Pullman” premiered in Seattle, where West, an African American, launched her theater career and lives.
Washington Post critic Peter Marks called West’s script “heavy-handed” and the narrative “mean-spirited.” In his Dec. 5 review, he said the characters did not need to keep driving home the point of “how ungrateful the unseen white passengers are.”
I agree that the story could have been more nuanced. We are not surprised by the elder Sykes’ change in posture and over-the-top cheerfulness every time the white conductor approaches. Nor are we surprised when Sister Juba, the voluptuous, bluesy female lead becomes a protective mother figure for the young white female stowaway, even after the girl has hurled “Nigger wench!” at her. These depictions definitely could make you think “This again?” Yet, in a time when people have irrationally bought into the notion of a post-racial society, a nuanced depiction of America’s hard history might fly over the heads of the post-racial believers.
In a post-racial America, the murder of Trayvon Martin would not have compelled President Obama, who will soon be inaugurated for a second term, to make so sorrowful, sympathetic and personal a public statement as he did last March: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” Obama could not dismiss the possibility of race as a motive in that deadly confrontation. We don’t live in that America.
If we did, there would not have been a rash of 2012 election-related posts on Facebook loaded with racist comments, including one widely publicized Obama death wish.
Perhaps a playwright’s heavy hand is necessary to bring our race history into focus with directness and clarity, lest we leap ahead recklessly, leaving the lessons behind.
Marks acknowledges that “sidestepping the clichés … is no easy task."
Neither is sitting among a racially mixed audience taking in a play such as this. We see Sylvester, a union organizer, display sheer mental fatigue when having to respond in the middle of the night to repeated pages from a neglected rich brat. We see the porters having to wipe the floor clean of tobacco spit that white passengers had not bothered directing toward a proper receptacle.
Now, with the house lights on, the seat bottoms up and the exit doors open, I am caught off guard by this woman’s guilty purging: “I want to apologize for being white.”
“Oh, stop that,” I said to her, now a little embarrassed myself.
My parents were born during the Great Depression. They had attended the show with me and were moving toward the exit. I looked at them and then directly at this woman, and said with sincerity, “That's sensitive of you.”
She seemed grateful for my having said so but still kind of sad and bothered. Of course, she was no more sorry to be white than I am to be black. What was really bothering her, agitating her sense of humanity, were the inhumanity and injustices she had seen dramatized. It was all the race stuff.
Just when America thinks it has miraculously passed through some post-racial portal, here comes the often-told and never-before-told stories being acted out for audiences with possible denial tendencies. Last February, the Pew Research Center released a study that showed 83 percent of Americans now say it’s “all right for blacks and whites to date each other,” a kind of social progress. My sister recalls a white co-worker expressing exasperated relief that Obama’s 2008 election would let us “finally stop talking about all this race stuff.” In some way, though, she did not know it, this woman was apologizing for the graduate school classmate who told me that emotion was out of place in an academic discourse on U.S. slavery and its grimy residue. Social progress and race fatigue feed denial and revisionism.
Legislation will address discrimination, but only humanity will enable people to face themselves and the past honestly, even those histories that are far removed from them but at the same time directly linked to them. This woman had already shown she was pleasant and easy to talk with, and now it was clear that she had been affected. An uncomfortable “I'm sorry” seemed a decent and humane thing to say.
Avis Matthews Davis is a writer, teacher, and student of history in Prince George’s County. She was special projects editor at the former Journal Newspapers.

Jan 12, 2013

Hush Puppy Love

Knowing that he's dying and needing to know that his girl will stand strong after he's gone, Hush Puppy's daddy (Dwight Henry) reminds her that she is tough enough. 
"Who da man?!" he asks his daughter. 
"I'm the man!"Hush Puppy yells back, like a prize fighter.
 She's just a child, and not a man at all. But we're not mad about that, are we? 
This week, Quvenzhane Wallis became the youngest Oscar nominee ever, for her heart-stealing role as Hush Puppy in "Beasts of the Southern Wild." She was 6 years old during the filming. 
I was weak for Quvenzhane the moment I saw her on the screen, scrounging around in her underwear and white rain boots, the cutest and smartest and strongest of all the wild things living on this sinking bayou island called The Bathtub. A face that a grandmother would want to wash, and then kiss all over, and a head of hair an aunt would want to put a comb to. Hush Puppy, a little girl sensing first and then seeing the only world she knows suddenly falling down. Her small world, the larger world, everything: shifting, drowning, drifting, failing, accelerating. Her small known world becomes suddenly big and intimidating, and not just out of her control but out of her Daddy's, too.
In the end, Hush Puppy stands down the big, beastly world, knowing that it may have its way, that things will come to pass, but that her mark on the universe is indestructible: "In a million years, when kids go to school, they're gonna know that once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub."     - ADM

Jan 1, 2013

What We're Worth

We live in America, a country where production and power reign supreme. If we don't achieve what seems to be the norm, we feel less than. That's not a mistake. That's what America is about. It's also wrong. The true value of a human is not what he or she can make, it's what he or she stands for. We (you and me and a lot of people) need to learn to value who we are, not just what we do. Part of our worth is our compassion, our desire to help, to make other people feel at ease, feel whole. Since when did my bank account speak for me? 
-- An Contributor