When words save

This essay was originally published on October 2, 2015. It is being re-shared in support of LPR’s 10th Anniversary celebration.

As a literature person, I often feel like the church lady at the door: “Hello, I’m here to tell you about a book that can save your life.” Slam.

But sometimes, someone lets you in, and sometimes, you’re not alone. I was having tea with a fellow book evangelist and LPR’s on-line editor, Debby Kevin, when she mentioned Buck: A Memoir, and thought the author, M. K. Asante, would make a good interview for the Little Patuxent Review

People offer suggestions all the time (they’re church ladies too), and I dutifully do the research, read the books and make the call. This time, I was redeemed at the pulpit. Buck was not my typical reading fodder: It’s the salty story, studded with rap lyrics, of a 14-year-old gone wild who liberates himself at an alternative school in Philadelphia. He becomes a rap poet, a filmmaker, a writer, and the youngest tenured professor in Morgan State University’s history. M. K. Asante was an amazing interview. (The article appeared in the latest issue of LPR, summer 2015.)

So when I was sitting at a party for a friend, David Barrett, next to an acquaintance who worked with him at Howard County’s alternative school, I mentioned Buck.

Anne Reis is the media specialist at the school, Homewood Center; she’s obviously a book person. She read Buck, then started her network going. She wanted Asante to talk to the kids at Homewood School. First, she called on Barrett, who knew Asante’s father, a Temple University professor known as the father of Afrocentricity. No luck. Then she called the agent. Too expensive. Then she passed the book along to the staff, one of whom was Rayna DuBose, a long-term substitute teacher at Homewood. DuBose read the book and started Twitter messaging Asante. He began to answer and then agreed to the tiny sum that Reis had in her budget.

Barrett, who teaches math at Homewood, explained: “When word got out that author and professor M.K. Asante would be coming to Homewood Center to discuss his book and his life; buzz and excitement were considerable among the faculty and staff.  But there was also some skepticism among the students. They had been audience to speakers in the past with whom they did not necessarily connect.  Why would this one be any different?” Just before Asante was scheduled to begin speaking, Barrett was watching for the guest author on the day of his talk, and saw a young man coming up Homewood’s walk. At first, Barrett thought he was a student coming in late, “but there was something about his walk – head held high, a smooth confident stride – that told me I was wrong.”

And that’s what the youthful 33-year-old Asante wanted everyone to know: He was just like their students.

“When he was young, he was just like them,” Reis said he told the gathered students and staff. “But something clicked for him. He explained that he realized that education was going to free him. ‘It’s what they want you not to have — it’s your freedom,’ ” Reis said he told them.

Asante captured them from the moment he began his rap: “Young buck, buck wild, buck shots, buck town, black buck, make buck, slave buck, buck now …”

M.K. Assante captivates students at Homewood Center.

M.K. Assante captivates students at Homewood Center.

“After that, they were putty in his hands,” Barrett recalled. “The 33-year old Morgan State professor proceeded to tell them that he was born in Zimbabwe; had grown up in Philadelphia and gotten caught up in the street culture of that city. He did not see much of his father after his parents divorced and he was not happy about that. Ultimately he was sent to an alternative school (‘just like you’) where he began to turn around his life after an English teacher gave him a blank piece of paper and told him to write. ‘Write about anything you want. But write sincerely and truthfully.’ He had never before been asked or directed in that manner to write. And he felt challenged and responded accordingly.”

Asante Jaelyn

Homewood student Jailyn Davis was eager to talk with M.K. Asante after his presentation.

After his talk, one staff member asked him how teachers could reach a student, sitting slumped in a classroom chair, on his phone, ignoring everything going on in class.

“I was that kid,” Reis remembers Asante saying. “People were talking to me and I was hearing all of it. I just wasn’t ready yet.”

Asante used the analogy of a garden, Reis said. Gardeners can prepare the soil, pull the weeds and water, but then nothing happens. Suddenly the sun hits and it all blooms.

“That was a great thing for staff to hear,” Reis said.

The most amazing thing was the silence during his question and answer period, Reis said. After someone asked a question, Asante paused to think for a moment, and “you could have heard a pin drop — at our school there’s a lot of bad behavior — that doesn’t happen.”

Homewood Center student Dre Fleeks, who had a copy of Buck autographed for him, with the author, M.K. Asante.

Homewood Center student Dre Fleeks, who had a copy of Buck autographed for him, with the author, M.K. Asante.

Reis had introduced Asante and left her copy of his book on the stage. After Asante had finished answering questions, she said, “he was like a magnet.” Students gathered around him for selfies and autographs. Reis saw one boy with Asante’s book, and said, ‘Hey, I didn’t know you had the book.’ She looked closer and saw that it was her book. She pulled him aside and asked: “Do you want to have it signed?”

“He gave me a huge hug,” Reis said. “In a school where kids don’t read, I found a kid — essentially — stealing my book so he could get it signed. It was really touching.”

The ripple effect of literature can’t be measured quantitatively. But from Debby to me to Anne to David, to the staff and students of Homewood, the waves reached out exponentially, to touch lots of readers along the way. Doors were opened for these students, and the church ladies (and gentlemen) actually spread their message. Maybe, just maybe, a few souls were saved.

NOTE: If you enjoyed this essay, please check out LPR’s Issue 11: Social Justice. https://littlepatuxentreview.org/issues/11-winter-2012/

Teachers Gillian Crevelle and Rayna Dubose, teachers at Homewood, are big Asante fans.

Teachers Gillian Crevelle and Rayna Dubose, teachers at Homewood, are big Asante fans.

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Summer’s here

Little Patuxent Review Editor Steven Leyva introduces the upcoming Summer 2015 issue. Join us on Saturday, June 13, from 2-4 for the launch reading and reception. Details can be found here.

Summer leashes us to euphoria, but not for long. After all, “Summer’s lease hath all too short a date,” as the Bard reminds us. Words fascinate me, particularly the music of words, and I can’t help but notice the interplay between “leash” and “lease.” The season suggests a tension between what is bound and what is borrowed. Car windows come down and we share each other’s musical tastes for a time, often with a certain chagrin. Maybe you too have pulled parallel to a sleek, tinted SUV exuding raw muscle in its revving engine, only to hear Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me, Maybe” blasting unabashedly. The open maw of a neighbor’s charcoal grill reminds you to ask for your drill back. And a burger too. Perhaps it’s nostalgia from childhood, but life seems more alive during summer. Surly we need it to be, but how then to reconcile summer’s endorphins with the fact that this is often when the murder rates rise, we recognize that the bees have not come back, and the inevitable anniversaries of Katrina and September 11 arrive.

2015Open LPR front coverThe issue ahead embodies that tension, soothing the reader’s
eardrum with euphony worthy of Barry White while also engaging
those visceral parts of human consciousness: a sense of justice, unbridled passion, senescence, hope, imagination. Ian MacLean Davis accents these literary explorations with his memory-infused art. Davis examines ideas of transformation and “borrowing” and so reinforces this issue’s summerness. Interviews with M.K. Asante and Morna McDermott both provide a revelatory dialogue sending echoes back into the poetry and prose. Almost choral in its call and response, placing so many artistic voices in one space feels like the songs of long daylight and a sky so clear, so blue, we feel its fragility.
One of the great joys of editing Little Patuxent Review has been
introducing new writers to new readers. Certainly, this is one of LPR’s core values, but it also reflects my deepest hopes that communities and conversations built around art affect the world for the better. Whether investigating the complexities of race, the lasting ramifications of war, or the power of language to make the invisible seen, the poets and storytellers here are doing the hard work and hard play required for such change to seem possible. Perhaps such hope is a short-term lease, but it is “more lovely and more temperate” than the alternative.

~ Steven Leyva