“We Could Be Free” by American Rapper Vic Mensa

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Vic Mensa (foreground) from song video “We Could Be Free”
Photo Credit: Rolling Stone

 

In keeping with my end-of-year tradition, I feature a song on my Poetry Corner December 2018. During this year of growing division in the USA, the hip hop song “We Could Be Free” by Vic Mensa captured my attention. It’s the thirteenth track on Mensa’s first, full-length, studio album, The Autobiography, released on July 28, 2017.

An American rapper, singer, and songwriter, Vic Mensa was born Victor Kwesi Mensah on June 6, 1993, in Chicago, Illinois. He grew up in the good part of the Hyde Park neighborhood within a sheltered home with two parents, both educators. His white American mother and Ghanaian father, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, wanted their son to go to college. But the young Vic dreamed of becoming a rock star.

With adolescence came exposure to the real world outside of Vic’s gated community. In “Memories on 47th Street,” the biracial Mensa raps of his loss of innocence and the beginning of his drug use.

At age 12 I learned the difference between white and black
Police pulled me off of my bike, I landed on my back
Back to reality, oops, a victim of gravity
Where they pull you down and keep you there
Dependin’ on how you keep your hair

“I started to realize that America and the world were categorizing me as being black and all the stigmas attached to that, which would take a lifetime to unpack,” Mensa says in an interview with the Chicago Tribune.

Mensa concludes in “Memories on 47th Street:”

In a land of desperation we often turn to self-medication as a coping mechanism
Some make a living as hood pharmacists while some just inhale to remove them from hell
I watched from the window of a gated community until I grew old enough
There was no immunity from allure of the life
 

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“Revolutionary Suicide”: Remembering the Jonestown Massacre

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Aerial view of Paradise off of Clark Road – Camp Fire, Northern California
November 15, 2018
Photo Credit: San Francisco Examiner (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

 

As California burns and super-storms ravage our southern and eastern coastal states, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Reverend Jim Jones and the People’s Temple. Today, November 18th, is the fortieth anniversary of the mass murder-suicide of 916 Americans at the People’s Temple Agricultural Project at Jonestown in the northwest forested region of Guyana.

The 276 dead American children had no choice.

Teacher with Children Singing – Jonestown – Guyana
Photo Credit: California Digital Library

 

Victim of his own megalomania and alternate reality, the Pentecostal leader coerced his followers into ingesting cyanide-laced, grape-flavored Flavor Aid.

“Revolutionary suicide,” the Reverend Jim Jones called his final, defiant act. Continue reading

We want our country back

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White NATIONALISTS in Charlottesville – Virginia – August 2017
Photo Credit: Vox (Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency)

We want our country back
rile white nationalists
goose-stepping through the streets
of Americaville
waving tiki torches
emboldened and blinded
by their chosen fuhrer
ruling in the White House.

Homo sapiens. Wise man. Where is the wisdom, our superior intelligence, when we know not that we know not? How soon we forget that we live on the ancestral lands of conquered Native Americans: over 500 tribes occupying these lands for more than 15,000 years. How soon we forget that the good life we have enjoyed for generations has come with the sacrifice of non-white bodies to the gods of greed, plunder, and dispossession. Continue reading

“Humanity” by Afro-Brazilian Writer & Poet Carolina Maria de Jesus

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Carolina Maria de Jesus - Favela of Caninde - Sao Paulo - Before publication of first book

Carolina Maria de Jesus with cart – Favela of Canindé – São Paulo (circa 1958)
Photo Credit: Jornal Estado de Minas (Collection Audálio Dantas)

 

My Poetry Corner November 2018 features the poem “Humanity” (Humanidade) by Afro-Brazilian writer and poet, Carolina Maria de Jesus (1914-1977), born in a rural community in Minas Gerais, Southeast Brazil.

An illegitimate child of a sharecropping family, Carolina was treated as an outcast. After just two years in primary school, when she learned to read and write, she developed a love for reading. She dreamed of becoming a writer.

“The book…fascinates me,” de Jesus writes in My Strange Diary (Meu Estranho Diário). “I was raised in the world. Without maternal guidance. But books guided my thinking. Avoiding the abysses that we encounter in life. Blessed the time I spent reading. I came to the conclusion that it’s the poor who must read. Because the book, it’s the compass that we have to guide man into the future…”

In 1930, de Jesus moved with her family to the State of São Paulo, where she worked as a washerwoman and, later, as a housemaid. After her mother’s death in 1937, she moved to the state capital, an industrial megalopolis. In 1948, she became pregnant for a Portuguese sailor. After he abandoned her, she moved to the favela (slum) of Canindé. Two other children followed, for different fathers.

De Jesus eked out a living: working as a housemaid and scavenging for paper and scrap metal around Canindé. An independent woman, she refused to marry because of the domestic violence she witnessed around her. Writing on blank pages of used notebooks she found in trash cans, she began recording her day-to-day existence as one of society’s “discarded” and marginalized people.

In her first entry, she writes: “July 15, 1955. The birthday of my daughter Vera Eunice [born 1953]. I wanted to buy a pair of shoes for her, but the price of food keeps us from realizing our desires. Actually we are slaves to the cost of living…”

Carolina Maria de Jesus - Manuscript 15 July 1955

Carolina Maria de Jesus – Manuscript of Journal – July 15, 1955
Photo Credit: Templo Cultural Delfos

 

Her stories, poems, and journal entries describe her struggle to rise above poverty and the ever-present specter of hunger. She calls attention to the social problems they face—prostitution, adultery, incest, alcoholism, physical violence, and foul language—and the consequences in their lives. She writes of the racial injustice and discrimination heaped on the poor and blacks in the favelas. She notes the empty promises made by politicians.

In an untitled poem from her journal, de Jesus requests:

Don’t say that I was trash,
that I lived on the margin of life.
Say that I was looking for work,
but I was always slighted.
Tell the Brazilian people
that my dream was to be a writer,
but I did not have money
to pay for a publisher.

A breakthrough came in 1958 when Carolina de Jesus met the young journalist, Audálio Dantas, during his visit to the favela for an assignment. On learning about her journal, he recognized its uniqueness and sociological importance. Through Dantas’ influence, edited excerpts were published in a magazine. Their popularity among readers led to the publication of her journal in 1960 as a book titled, Quarto de Despejo (Trash Room).

Carolina Maria de Jesus, Audálio Dantas e Ruth de Souza na Favela do Canindé. São Paulo, 1961

From left to right: Carolina Maria de Jesus, Journalist Audálio Dantas, and Actress Ruth de Souza – Favela of Canindé – São Paulo – 1961
Photo Credit: Collection Audálio Dantas

 

When asked about the idea for the name of her book, de Jesus told the interviewer: “In 1948, when they began to demolish one-story houses to construct apartment buildings, we, the poor, that lived in collective housing units, were trashed and we began living under bridges. That’s why I call the favela the trash room for a city. We, the poor, are old junk.”

Trash Room became an instant bestseller, selling 10,000 copies within the first three days and 90,000 more copies over the next six months. The English version, Child of the Dark, followed in 1962. The book soon drew international attention. But, to the Brazilian literary elite, it lacked linguistic quality. Three more books published in the 1960s received little attention.

Carolina Maria de Jesus durante noite de autógrafos do lançamento de seu livro Quarto de Despejo, São Paulo, em 1960.

Carolina Maria de Jesus signing her book Quarto de Despejo – São Paulo – 1960
Photo Credit: Templo Cultural Delfos

 

In her poem, “Many fled on seeing me,” published posthumously (1996) in Personal Anthology, a poetry collection, de Jesus laments:

It was paper I collected
To pay for my living
And in the trash I found books to read
How many things I wanted to do
I was hindered by prejudice
When I die I want to be born again
In a country where blacks predominate

With her book royalties, Carolina de Jesus bought a house in a middle-class neighborhood. Admiration turned to envy. Some accused her of being ambitious and uncharitable.

The featured poem, “Humanity,” published posthumously in My Strange Diary, is composed of four stanzas with a rhyme scheme aabccb. De Jesus expresses her disillusions with humankind: the perversity, wickedness, greed, tyrannical…egoists, and hypocrisy.

After knowing humanity
its perversities
its ambitions
I have been getting older
and losing
the illusions

[…]

When I die…
I don’t want to be born again
It’s horrible, to endure humanity
that has a noble appearance
that conceals
its worst qualities

Unable to adjust to life among the middle-class, de Jesus moved to the countryside where she lived in poverty until the end of her life. Her passing in 1977 went virtually unnoticed. She left behind more than 5,000 handwritten pages that contained seven novels, over 60 texts of chronicles, fables, autobiography and stories, over 100 poems, and four plays.

To read the featured poem in its original Portuguese and learn more about the work of Carolina Maria de Jesus, go to my Poetry Corner November 2018.

NOTE: All translations from Portuguese to English done by Rosaliene Bacchus.

 

Wisdom Through the Ages by Gary Girdhari

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Front Cover - Wisdom Through the Ages by Gary Girdhari

Front Cover: Wisdom Through the Ages compiled by Gary Girdhari

 

Wisdom Through the Ages by Gary Girdhari is a handbook and daily companion of selected quotations from humankind’s great thinkers, past and present. A former Professor of Biology (PhD) at the University of Guyana, Girdhari is concerned about the deteriorating state of modern civilization. As “an ardent believer in the mass psychology of change,” he seeks “to ventilate [his] views and reflections through the minds of really great people presented in this volume.”

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
~ Margaret Mead, American anthropologist (p.127)

In the Introduction, Girdhari recounts that his first encounter with “quotations from outstanding persons” in primary school had a profound and lasting effect on his life. Later, as a young school teacher pursuing undergraduate studies, he had aligned with the anti-colonial movement that swept across then British Guiana and other colonial territories worldwide. To him, the time had come for such a revolutionary change. It was “commonsense logic.”

Truth and love will triumph over tyranny and injustice. Throughout history tyrants always fall.
~ Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi, Leader of India’s independence movement (p.123) Continue reading

“Male and female He created them”

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Brett Kavanaugh sworn in to the US Supreme Court - 6 October 2018

Brett Kavanaugh sworn in to the U.S. Supreme Court – October 6, 2018
Photo Credit: The Press Democrat

 

Despite sexual assault allegations, on October 6, 2018, Brett Kavanaugh was sworn in to the U.S. Supreme Court. His contentious nomination process before the male-dominated Senate Committee hammered home the gnawing reality: Women have yet to achieve equal footing with men under our legal system.

To achieve what may have been a lifelong ambition, Kavanaugh exposed his “two spirited daughters” to the public bashing of his integrity. Has he used the sexual allegations – which he has denied with tears and anger – as a teaching moment for his ten- and thirteen-year old daughters? Has he considered the possibility that his daughters could one day suffer the same trauma as his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford?

Ford did not tell her parents what had happened that summer day while she was out with trusted friends. Like so many of us born female, she kept the sexual assault a secret. Continue reading

“Clan” – Poem by Jamaica-born Colin Channer

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Front Cover - Providential - Poems by Colin Channer

Front Cover: Providential: Poems by Colin Channer
Photo Credit: Akashic Books

 

My Poetry Corner October 2018 features the poem “Clan” from the poetry collection, Providential, by Colin Channer, a novelist and poet born in Kingston, Jamaica. At eighteen, upon completion of high school, he migrated to New York to pursue a career in journalism. He earned a B.A. in Media Communications from Hunter College of the City University of New York. Father of two, he currently lives in New England.

When Channer was six years old, his father, a policeman, left the family, forcing his mother to work two jobs. After her daytime job as a pharmacist at a local hospital, she worked nights in a drugstore. Channer’s collection explores the violence of policing that ruined his father, their fractured relationship, and the challenges of being a better father to his own teenage son.

Channer’s teenage years contrasts with that of his American-born son. In his poem “Mimic,” he observes his son, born with the ears of a mimic: 

Makonnen, Brooklyn teenager
with Antillean roots
replanted in Rhode Island,
a state petiter than the country
where my navel string was cut.

After guiding his son through the roots of the civil war in Liberia – founded on the coast of Guinea / by ex-chattel – Channer reflects on his kinsmen in Jamaica.

How they discuss a slaughter
with ease, by rote,
never as something spectacular,
absurd. And I belong to them,
on two sides, for generations,
by blood. 

My kinsmen aren’t poets.
They’re cops. Continue reading

Why should I care about rising sea levels?

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Price Reduced Waterfront Property

Price Reduced Waterfront Property – East Coast USA
Photo Credit: Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) June 2018 Report

 

On September 14th, Hurricane Florence hit the North Carolina coast. With warmer oceans driven by climate change, the massive, slow-moving storm dumped more than 20 inches of rain on its arrival. The storm surge reached levels of 9 to 13 feet. Hundreds of inundated home owners may never recover from the damages.

Ten years ago, on September 15, 2008, another kind of disaster struck our nation with the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the insurance giant AIG. The worst financial crisis since the Great Depression sent rogue waves across our nation and worldwide. The fallout—foreclosures, shrinking home values, and millions of job losses—battered Americans.

With rising sea levels—the result of ongoing heating of our oceans and atmosphere—another massive, slow-moving crisis is brewing. Hundreds of thousands of coastal properties will increasingly face chronic high-tide flooding. Their falling property values will threaten local and regional real estate markets that could cascade nationwide into a coastal real estate bust. Continue reading

“Mary Comes Down” – Poem by Jeannine M Pitas

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Immigrant Women in Line for Inspection at Ellis Island - New York

Photo Credit: The Newberry Digital Collections for the Classroom

 

My Poetry Corner September 2018 features the poem “Mary Comes Down” from the poetry collection Thank You For Dreaming by Jeannine M. Pitas. Native of Buffalo, New York, Pitas is a poet, writer, teacher, and Spanish-English literary translator. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Toronto, Canada. She currently lives in Dubuque, Iowa, where she is an Assistant Professor of English and Spanish at the University of Dubuque.

Pitas dedicates the poems in this collection “to those who dream.” She writes in her poem, “thank you for dreaming”:

you have made it to this adopted country
with your heart intact
and you will use it to find people
like you, once silenced –
touched and held
by your dreams

In “Just after my mother tells me she voted for Trump,” Pitas questions her mother’s xenophobia. Had her mother forgotten that she had sent Jeannine to Polish Saturday School and that Jeannine’s Polish great-grandmother had refused to speak English?

America First, American carnage, make America
great again, pass the ban, build the wall,
Mama, Mamusia, tell me –
Where on earth do you think we came from?
Who the hell can we say we are?

Rejecting the divisive politics of xenophobia and hate, Pitas seeks connection with the Other. “I want to touch your life with mine,” she repeats twice in her poem, “To an Immigrant.” Continue reading

A Troublesome Man by Stella Bagot

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Front Cover - A Troublesome Man by Stella Bagot

Front Cover of A Troublesome Man by Stella Bagot

 

In her authorized biography, A Troublesome Man: About the life of Dr. Ptolemy Reid, Prime Minister of Guyana, 1980-1984, Stella Bagot records Dr. Reid’s account of his journey from childhood to his entrance into political life. It’s an engaging and inspiring story of a poor village boy who, with determination and persistence, overcame the obstacles along each step of his journey.

Ptolemy was born on May 8, 1918, the youngest of five siblings, in Dartmouth Village on the Essequibo Coast of then British Guiana. He lost his father to pneumonia when he was ten years old. To contribute to the family’s income, he worked on their farm plot, in the sugarcane fields, and with local fishermen. His school attendance suffered.

On completing primary school at sixteen, Ptolemy pursued employment as a pupil teacher. Five years later, he took two years off to earn his teacher’s certificate at the Government Training Center in Georgetown, the capital. Over the following eight years, he gained the reputation as a strict and proficient teacher at the Dartmouth Anglican village school. Continue reading