In a year characterized by racial urgency, the local Martin Luther King Jr. essay contest is expanding to accept entries from students, faculty and staff at Cuyahoga Community College, as well as those at Case Western Reserve University.
The essays should reflect the themes in King’s first book, Stride Toward Freedom, which won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1958. Winners will receive a monetary prize and a copy of one of King’s books.
Sponsors include the Cleveland Humanities Collaborative, Voices from the Village, Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, Kelvin Smith Library, the Case Office of Inclusion, Diversity, and Equal Opportunity and the Office of Multicultural Affairs.
The beginning movements of this essay began with a complex question: Which author’s reading from the 80th Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards would I choose to reflect upon? I describe the question as complex because while each award recipient—Jericho Brown, Marilyn Chin, Marlon James and Richard S. Dunn—gave memorable readings, I found myself wanting to reflect on the writer (a non-recipient of the award) whose work struck me the most with feelings of anger, bleakness and dignity. I chose Joesiah Poulson, who commenced the readings with his unforgettable poem, “Am I Invisible?” He wrote this while still in fourth grade, using it to explore, document and investigate struggle and self-doubt. I had to choose Joesiah.
Ronn Richards, CEO of the Cleveland Foundation, introduced Joesiah with the expected credits: the poet’s full name, school, grade level and title of poem. Audience members learned that Josiah’s presence at the 80th annual award ceremony was the result of a partnership with Kent State University’s Wick Poetry Center. When Richards announced Joesiah’s title “Am I Invisible?” an unsettling small ripple of laughter flowed throughout the audience.
It was a disturbing beginning. Had the audience just laughed at Joesiah’s title, finding it funny? Did they laugh as a way to say, “Yes, Joesiah, you are invisible and it is comical that you’ve asked such a question?” Perhaps the audience’s laughter was the result of discomfort in knowing a young poet, a child, is in tune with the disturbing themes Ralph Ellison explored in his novel Invisible Man — racism, limitation, stereotypes and self identity.
But, as usual, in moments of awkwardness and discomfort, the poet rises. Joesiah begins his reading and the speaker of the poem opens with testimony:
I’ve been down long roads,
said yes when I meant no.
I lost control of the wheel.
This is not the kind of testimony I expect a boy of 11 to write about. Joesiah is prematurely expressing his awareness of hard times, insecurity and powerlessness. Joesiah‘s decision to begin the poem with a first person speaker creates an urgent transparent mood and emphasizes the personal testimony theme of the poem. Joesiah continues with a structure complete with questions and statements. The second stanza questions an unknown second person. The second stanza asks:
Do you ever wonder
when you listen to the thunder,
why your world feels so small?
The narrator quickly shifts the attention to the second person. This shift forces readers and audience members to ask themselves a question. It is as if the narrator is asking readers to consider the ideas of feeling insignificant and unimpressive. And, perhaps the narrator is asking readers to consider the feelings of the unknown “I” from the preceding opening stanza, as in — put yourself in my shoes. Joesiah is ultimately asking readers to empathize.
Joesiah’s poem is short and made of six stanzas (each stanza is a tercet). Joesiah decides to make his narrator continually ask questions throughout the poem. Four questions are posed throughout the poem (and let’s not forget that Joesiah even titles his poem as a question — “Am I Invisible?”). The third stanza is solely made of questions. Joesiah writes:
Do you ever think
what you’re standing at the brink of?
feel like giving up, but can’t walk away?
The author creates a timely poem filled with one of our most important tasks: Delivering testimony and asking questions in order to create conversations around some of our most sensitive and challenging topics: race, identity, racism and hardship. In the most haunting line (line 12) of the poem the narrator introduces the notorious “they” pronoun:
Put yourself on the line,
though you feel inside
like they don’t know you’re alive.
Joesiah’s voice offered an unsettling timbre during this part of his reading at Anisfield. His innocent and naturally child-like voice carried throughout the auditorium with an uncomfortable spirit of sadness and hopelessness. It seems that one of Joesiah’s aims in writing “Am I Invisible?” was to announce his alertness of how distant we are from reaching the very goal and dream of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. There is very little to show as evidence that we are, as Joesiah writes, at “the brink of” change or close to solutions for diminishing racism and embracing human diversity. Joesiah is clearly aware that “they” are mercilessness and cruel.
Then there is a shift in the reading and in the poem. By the fifth stanza of the poem there is a sense that something must change. The solitary speaker turns the question on the self. Joesiah writes:
Night after night trying to decide,
am I going to speak out
or get lost in the crowd?
A decision has to be made. In the final stanza of the poem Joesiah decides:
When the lights go down in the city
I’ll be right here
Joesiah brings hope and determination even as he closes the poem with dark imagery, “Night after night” (line 13) and “When the lights go down” (line 16). We are to believe that despite going through “long roads” and getting “lost in the crowd” — we must stay strong. Joesiah ended his reading with a sudden and unpredictably confident and determined voice. His message was clear: we must continue to shine even in hard times. A woman sitting next to me responded to Joesiah’s reading with an erupting “Amen!” and the entire auditorium exploded with applause, cheers and whistles.
Joesiah‘s skill to take readers (and audience members) through a wide range of emotions: despair, hopelessness, angst and then back to hope is impressive. A novice writer, Joesiah shows admirable control over the elements of diction, structure and rhyme. The fifth grade poet has earned the ahead-of-his-time marker. His poem forces us to get honest about the effects of racism and the damage that comes with denouncing human diversity. Joesiah answers his own questions and ultimately takes matters into his own hands. He shows us how critical it is to rely on the self for answers, validation, and strength.
Ali McClain is a Cleveland poet and graduate student. She directs an after-school program for girls ages 10-18 at West Side Community House. She is also a co-founder of acerbic, an artist collective.
by Dr. Anand Bhat
In 2007, when I asked my driver in Caracas if evangelical Christianity had been making its way into the oil-rich jungles of Venezuela, he nodded, smiled, and said, “Yes, they say officially they are here for the Church of Pentecost, but I think they are here for the Church of the CIA.” In every developing nation, that nod and that smile and that second story represent the beginning of almost every great storytelling session I have had about recent history and current events.
Listen to me now. Me warn him… Long time I drop warnings that other people close, friend and enemy, was going get him in a whole heap o’trouble. Every one of we know at least one, don’t it? Always have a notion but never come up with a single idea. Always working plenty of scheme but never have a plan… Me not going name who but I warn the Singer…. Me love that man to the max. Me would take a bullet for the Singer. But gentlemens, me can only take one.
Writer Marlon James has won this year’s Anisfield-Wolf and Man Booker prizes by driving us past recent Jamaican history. In a cacophony of voices, versions, and views, James writes a fictional exploration into the 1976 assassination attempt on reggae superstar Bob Marley. In A Brief History of Seven Killings, quoted above, readers embark on a violent and entertaining ride through Kingston slum fights (sponsored by warring political parties) that become a Cold War flashpoint in Michael Manley’s Jamaica. Marley, perceived to be supporting the socialist People’s National Party, falls victim to that fateful winter election and the CIA. The book then shifts to the United States where Jamaican political gangs morph into nonpartisan drug smugglers, tolerated by intelligence communities willing to overlook drug money if it goes towards fighting socialism and communism. Until it gets out of hand.
The book, whose rights have been sold to HBO for a TV series, should do well as a long form television drama. A populous that once stood at the docks to snatch up the latest installment from Charles Dickens now awaits the latest weekly HBO serial, one of contemporary America’s strongest art forms. James’ novel fits the format with its motley mix of characters and politics (“Game of Thrones”) and urban and police violence (“The Wire”). As East becomes West, the West too has become East by picking up a taste for epic legends with endless sub-stories, ambiguous facts and no definitive, singular truth. All thrive on a range of viewpoints, versions and classes.
From the deceased MP to the barely intelligible ramblings of a crack-fueled shooter, readers absorb from top to bottom a long overdue cultural multiplicity in A Brief History of Seven Killings. No one knows who served Mr. Darcy tea, but we all know who serves Lord Grantham tea. All of this points to progress. It points to the widening of the literary establishment’s mind but not perhaps as wide as it celebrates.
James’s novel most reminds me of Vikram Chandra’s magnum opus, Sacred Games, about a Mumbai police investigation into an Indian mafia don. Thick with pages and characters, Sacred Games exposes the connections between the underworld, police, politicians, and the film industry. Chandra also leaps into the future and the past with intercalary chapters that covered Naxalite rebels, Indian secret intelligence and the Partition of British India. Few novels set in the developing world can parallel A Brief History in quite the same way.
Published to positive reviews, Chandra’s novel did not have the sales or impact other South Asian books did. Even compared to other literary and popular books about South Asia (Bookseller of Kabul, All the Beautiful Forevers, Three Cups of Tea, Shantaram), it never received critical or popular mass appeal. It is rare to find on bookshelves today.
Why A Brief History of Seven Killings and other South Asian novels would have similar trajectories while Sacred Games did not is clear to me. The former have appeals to Western sensibilities that the third does not. Three Cups of Tea (for example) has a strong element of Orientalism with the classic story of a Westerner coming to Asia and educating rural women. A Brief History of Seven Killings tells a story about music and a musician famous throughout the West that cannot help but arouse interest in the United States. American characters from Rolling Stone and the CIA help ease the transition into the unfamiliar worlds of Jamaican politics and Kingston slums. If the book was about an assassination attempt on Prime Minister Manley and not Marley, we may not be having this award or book review.
Meanwhile film and music references in Sacred Games were unabashedly Bollywood; secretive government agencies were the CBI not the CIA, and the bogeyman feared is Pakistan not Russia or Cuba. No one smuggles drugs to the United States or London. No white people, no Christianity, no Clint Eastwood references, and no colonialism at all!
A Brief History of Seven Killings is a fantastic book, and it will make a fantastic HBO series given the novel’s natural similarity to the channel’s specialty—epic dramas. But Sacred Games moved me more deeply as it was a book deeply rooted in its culture and unapologetically Indian. Perhaps when we award books we should examine why some get attention and some do not and question the cultural biases we have against looking deeply into a truly “foreign” book. A truly open mind can wade into another world mentally without needing the props of the world it just left behind.
Twitter was made for pithy public intellectuals like Roxane Gay. Nearly 100,000 people follow the author and professor for her perspective on everything from the the 2016 presidential race to her growing obsession with HGTV shows. (She hate-watches House Hunters, like most people.)
Her latest two books—Bad Feminist, a collection of essays on gender, race and competitive Scrabble, and her debut novel, An Untamed State, about the aftermath of a Haitian woman’s kidnapping—were published in 2014. But pairing a high profile with two books in a single year creates at least one drawback: “The more you’re read, the more ‘crazy’ reads your work.”
Sitting comfortably in front of her audience last month at the University of Akron, Gay, 41, shared that her increased visibility has led to increased harassment online — from racial slurs to death threats. “It’s a very sad commentary on contemporary discourse that I’m not entitled to an opinion that you disagree with and you can’t just say ‘I disagree,’” she said. “It’s ‘I disagree and you’re ugly.’ ‘I disagree and you deserve to die.’ . . . It’s really frustrating.”
The Nebraska-born, Yale-educated thinker almost didn’t write her recent New York Times piece on the student protests at the University of Missouri, because of the hostile response she was sure to follow. In the end, she sent it to her editor and braced herself. “They get under your skin because it’s not just one; it’s hundreds,” Gay said. “All day, every day. Eventually you’re like, I have to say something.”
As an English professor at Purdue University, Gay makes a strong case for student activism and creating spaces where it can flourish. “The idea of safe spaces is so complicated, because the world is an unsafe place and there’s no controlling it. There’s no controlling how people are going to behave in this world. But I can control my classroom, at least to an extent.” She paused. “I work very hard to foster what I think is a productive intellectual environment. It’s safe, yes.”
In November, PEN Center USA honored Gay with the 2015 Freedom to Write award. Her brief speech cut to the chase — her success as a writer is not about being fearless, but about confidence in her voice: “I allow myself to believe my life experiences have relevance. I allow myself to believe my voice matters in a world where as a woman, as a black woman, as a Haitian American woman, as a bisexual woman, I am told to remain silent in so many harmful ways. Those who disagree with me, often on Twitter, call this arrogance and I am absolutely fine with that.”