In the arch of Obama’s journey, unwavering faith
by e.g. bailey
After screams of joy at the news, the first thing I did when the election of President Obama was announced was to call my mother and my brother. They were both in South Dakota, where my brother lay in bed suffering from liver cancer. She had traveled from Atlanta to be by his side.
On this night, I felt a great urge to call my brother. Not to give him hope, because his case was terminal; they projected less than three months to live. On this night, I didn’t want to discuss the gravity of the situation, or medicine, or death. I simply wanted to share with him the overwhelming joy and relief, the poignancy of this moment in the lives of all Americans, but especially in the lives of African Americans, and likewise Africans in America.
In the face of his suffering, I wanted him to feel the pride in knowing the heights that an African had achieved in this country, to know that an African had “reached the mountaintop.” When I told him the news, he released a full-hearted laugh, saying, “Thank God, Brother Eric. This is a great thing. Thank you.”
Four hundred years ago an African would have been in bondage, toiling under slavery, his life and death balanced on the whim of his oppressors. And, less than 50 years ago, the descendants of that African could not vote, could not share the same bathroom, the same drinking fountain, or eat in the same restaurants with their fellow Americans. But here, in this moment, an African had achieved the highest office in this country, perhaps in the world.
And in the arc of that journey was embodied the faith, the determination, the wonder and the achievements of all who had paid the price of the ticket, including our shining princes, Martin and Malcolm.
At the annual Thanksgiving dinner with the Cage family, I was speaking with my young nephew Rashaan after he had recited the dinner grace. I asked him if he was going to be preacher like his father. He replied, without missing a beat, “Yes. And I’m also going to become president.”
I cannot remember the last time a Black child had claimed such a dream for himself or herself and thought it possible, a dream no longer the faith of struggle and imagination, but a dream now feasible and actual. And on January 20, standing in the shadow of not only Lincoln but also Martin, that dream will be commemorated.
published in Minneapolis Spokesman Recorder
22 January 2009
we are the first invention of god/flung like stars across the universe/our histories etched on the wind/blood and soil commingled
the drum beats at dawn for her sons to rise/we travel beyond the mountains of the moon/spread across continents like masks/invisible villages shaped into questions/awaiting answers from ancestors
birthsongs traced with the blood of tears/dark face of the sun where birthed the light of man/we traverse the dark night of motherless songs/only to suffer in the promise land
mine like gold from Berber coasts/memories swallowed by living ghosts/from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli/the halls of independence to the fields of the Indies/in ships on the horizon rests/our future burdens and dreams
we adorn ourselves with the bluest skies/tears beaded like sacred rope/to noose our bodies before our spirit dies/tributaries we flow into the American Nile
soldiers of the seventh cataract/we grow skyward like the roots of the baobab/rewrite the books burned to bone and ash/we raise fists like obelisks/arrows shot into the sun
Released on Election Day, ‘America’ is featured on Rift Magazine’s site: Through spoken word E.G. Bailey explores a post 9/11 America and the many issues confronting us, while looking towards hope and change. The haunting jazzy backing track was scored by Abstrakt Collision who reside in Dubai (United Arab Emirates). www.myspace.com/truruts
Posted on www.riftmagazine.com
November 4th, 2008 by Riftyrich
In 2007, I was asked by friend and collaborator, Assaad Lakkis, to write a few pieces for an upcoming album by his jazz band, Abstrakt Collision, based in Dubai. The album, titled Polidix, was to be all instrumental except for the pieces I would write. Assaad and I worked on a Miles Davis project back in the 90s, and also worked together on god’s pager. It was always a fruitful collaboration, so there was no question of saying yes. He sent me several recordings and I got to work. The piece was finished in June 2007 and recorded shortly there after by one of my favorite collaborators, Ben Durrant. The sessions also produced, The Last Poet, which featured Madame Mimi. After finishing the tracks I wasn’t sure what I would do with it. Assaad and I had agreed that he would release it on their album and I would release it on my end through Tru Ruts. I continued to perform the piece over the next year, and as the election drew closer I decided I would release it on Election Day as a single. I also decide to do my part with the getting out the vote, and created the postcard below. The design of the poem was created by Meleck Davis and the Vote image was created by Karin Odell, from a photo by Julian Murray. You can hear the recordings of both America and The Last Poet here.
one of my Spoken Word pieces by way of an introduction. it’s one of my favorite pieces and one of the first that started to capture the essence of what i define as spoken word. the definition of spoken word i developed from studying the art form over the years is this:
“Spoken Word is an art form which accentuates the rhythmic elements inherent in a poem––thereby expanding the texture, the context, and possibly the meaning of the work. You can accentuate these rhythms either through your verbal delivery or you can add music, or both. The work can be created by the individual poet or with a group of poets, and musicians, either improvisationally or through conscious arrangement.”
that’s the longer definition. the shorter one is basically,
“Spoken Word is accentuating the rhythmic elements inherent within a poem, whether through instrumentation or your own vocal delivery.”
the piece is a tribute to Black Arts Movement writers and their freedom from syntax and standard rules of poetry, fused with the history of Africans in America. the freedom they exhibited on the page, i wanted to figure out how to express that in the oralization, the performance, of the piece.
but at the time i didn’t know that what i was doing was called spoken word. i considered it jazz poetry. this is why on page it’s structured like a jazz poem, which i had been writing for a couple years. but in performance, it’s developed into a spoken word piece, and my development of it paralleled and guided my development as a spoken word artist. once i completed this piece, which i edited over the course of a couple years, i felt like i understood the essence of spoken word and what it aims for. it went on to win the Hughes Diop Poetry Award at the Gwendolyn Brooks Writers Conference, along with another poem, ‘letter to lisa’.
Note: Below is a live performance of ‘without punctuation’. It is fused with another piece, ‘diaspora’, and is now called, ‘Blues People’, in reference to the classic book on African American music by Amiri Baraka.
What will this be? An archive perhaps. Or a repository of dreams and visions. An oral history. Maybe a mythology. A sketch. A monologue. Or a segue. A road map. Instant replays. A never ending term paper. A disheveled briefcase. Rough draft of a pending lecture. Memorabilia. Explanations. Discoveries. Work notes. Home movies. A postmodern documentary. Rants and raves. Freedom papers. Or simply the blues. Whatever it is or becomes, I hope you find it worth your while. And take something with you. Peace.
This broadside of my poem, Afrika, was created for the Family Housing Project’s Home Sweet Home Again: An Exhibition of Art and Poetry, a project created to kick off the Family Housing Fund’s 25th Anniversary Year, with a goal to communicate the need for affordable housing in the Twin Cities. The exhibit featured over 100 artworks and poems by Twin Cities artists dealing with issues of homelessness, affordable housing, or the meaning of home. The exhibit was first presented at Intermedia Arts in 2005, and continues to be exhibited throughout the Twin Cities. A calendar, combining the artwork and poems, was also created, of which the broadside above was included. There was an accompanying chapbook which also featured the poems. Other artists featured in the exhibit included Sha Cage, Ta-coumba Aiken, Del Bey, Maya Washington, Frank J. Brown, Bill Cottman and others.
Afrika was written upon my return from a four and a half month journey back home to Afrika, in 1999, which included travels to Ghana, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Tanzania, Dubai, Amsterdam and Hong Kong. The poem deals with the displacement, the longing and the responsibilities that one often feels as an Afrikan in the Diaspora. The photograph used in the broadside is by Del Bey, a photographer in the Twin Cities, who captured the image on her journey to Afrika.
For more information on the exhibit, you can link here: http://www.fhfund.org/sshh/default.htm
Achebe is our Elder. For many of us, he is the famed griot teaching us our history, while telling us a great story. Nearly every Afrikan I spoke with about the play said they had read Achebe, perhaps not all his works but the least of all Things Fall Apart. For some, he was mandatory reading. And he should be, at least for all of us of Afrikan descent. Achebe’s goal, which he fully accepts, is to help us reclaim our stories, to help us to understand that our history was rich, and our stories beautiful before our subjugation at the hands of Europe. He states, “Here then is an adequate revolution for me to espous–to help my society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement.” But he is fully aware that this reclamation is not simply a glorification of what we were and who we are, and perhaps even who we want to be, but dealing fully with our past, even facing up to our hand in the matter. Earlier in the same essay he says, “What we need to do is to look back and try and find out where we went wrong, where the rain began to beat us.” In his most recent essay, he writes, “I know that such a tremendously potent and complex reinvention of self–calling, as it must do, on every faculty of mind and soul and spirit; drawing as it must, from every resource of memory and imagination and from a familiarity with our history, our arts and culture; but also from an unflinching consciousness of the flaws that blemished our inheritance…” For him the greatest danger is not remembering the agonies of the past but forgetting them. Though he was speaking about Nigeria after the Biafrian War, I think that statement strikes a deep cord in the consciousness of Afrikans and Afrikan Americans alike. In order to accept our selves and our beauty, we must also be able to accept our scars. And the story of Obi Okonkwo not only celebrates our culture but also forces us to face the difficulties our own culture can present us as we try to evolve into the future, as we try to negotiate and synthesize our existence in an everchanging world and yet hold on to our traditions. An epigraph from Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, could serve as a apt summary of the conflict in No Longer At Ease, and even a metaphor for the current state of many Afrikan countries: “The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interrengnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms.” Obi’s tragedy is that he finds himself at the epicenter of this rift. And it is these rifts in our history and encounter with Western culture about which Achebe writes: The arrival of Europeans in Things Fall Apart and the dawning of independence in No Longer At Ease. But these are not simply historical and physical rifts, but primarily psychological ones.
The journey of creating this work has been incredible and a blessing, but not without its struggle and at times exasperation. However, within it, I have discovered a great deal about myself and my people. I have felt in many ways like an apprentice in the company of a profound elder. Yet also, I have discovered that Obi’s story is in many ways my own. There is no conflict that Obi deals with that I have not encountered in one form or another in my experiences both in Afrika and here. These are dilemmas that all of us as Afrikans in America must deal with in our prodigal relationship with our home. But it is not our province alone, even my eldest brother residing in Ivory Coast deals with it as he struggles with his acceptance of Christianity and the traditional spiritual beliefs of our Grandfather, who reared him.
In the Igbo culture there is a tradition called the Mbari celebration. With this tradition, representatives from the community are chosen to prepare a festival of images in honor of Ala, the Earth goddess. The chosen representatives, ordinary citizens of the community and artists alike, go off into seclusion to create their works of art, which they present to the community during the ceremony. They are left alone to create, supported and fed by the community, sometimes for two years. That in many ways is what I see as the role of the artists that have come together to create this work, that speaks for and about the community, with its beauty and flaws. We can only hope that you enjoy our “home of images” as much as the villagers enjoy the Mbari ceremony.
Thanks enough cannot be given to Pangea World Theater for this incredible opportunity, for their faith and trust. Abundant thanks to my future wife, Sha Cage, without whose support, love and input this work would not be. And love and thanks to all the artists involved in this project for their brilliant gifts, from crew to cast, to support network to the whole Pangea family. Thanks to Chinua Achebe, for his work and for giving us permission to bring it to stage. To the Igbo community and Ummune Cultural Association. Special thanks to Hannatu Tongrit-Green, Onyebuchi Njaka, Larry Ubani and Flora Okwa. Also to Susan Robeson, Mimi Girma and J. Otis Powell!. The Playwrights’ Center for their development support. To parents: George and Ginny Bailey. To friends and family. I dedicate this work to my grandparents: Vaslekey and Mayamu. And to my mother, Massa Vaslekey Sirleaf. Without “We” I am nothing.
Begun in 1990 while a student at Notre Dame. Revised sometime between 1993 and 1997.