By Alice Faye Duncan
As summer came to a close, there was so much death and sadness around us. The sketchy details of Michael Brown’s murder plagued the news. Actress and activist, Ruby Dee died. Maya Angelou passed away at the top of the summer. And while writing this note, I just received word that J. California Cooper passed away today.
Like never before, we need a visitation of sunshine and good feelings to bolster us. And to this end, I reached out to teacher, poet, activist and lover of music, Arnold Adoff. Arnold is a noted anthologist. He edited the seminal collection of African American poetry, I AM THE DARKER BROTHER. For more than 30 years he was the devoted husband to award-winning children’s author, Virginia Hamilton.
I posed five questions to Arnold a week after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. His wise words offer writers and readers a way to find hope and joy, even in the face of trying times. Hear him with your heart.
virginia once said she wrote long and talked short…and i wrote short and talked long…..
your seemingly straightforward questions all require…. paragraphs and paragraphs of
and going from one to another to continue painting as the day progressed and the light changed…..
but i will try and be short and honest at the same time….so:
What part does music play in my everyday life?
1. my various simultaneous lives have always progressed with musical foreground and background accompaniments….from the eurocentric so-called classical music playing in my home all day….to my discovery at a young age of bird and prez and mingus and much of progressive jazz and blues…their african roots and the myriad aspects of african american cultures and classes and literatures….
i met virginia through my friendship with charles mingus and i play his compositions several times a day at least….many times to be followed by monk piano performances….
each sunday morning there will be a mahalia album on the turntable…sometimes late at night i will kick back and sip some red wine and go from willie nelson to waylon jennings to joni mitchel to leonard cohen to nina simone to the last poets to meshell ndegeocello…
however….unlike many other writers of several generations…it is an absolute longstanding rule of my process that there is n o music playing while i read and research and rewrite and write…
What are the top five songs that bring sunshine into your day?
2. mahalia’s didn’t it rain children….on a rainy day…of course stevie wonder’s you are the sunshine of my life….anything by ray charles….john lee hooker and lightnin hopkins and bessie smith…zep’s stairway to heaven…jeff buckley’s hallelujah….wade in the water….and on and on and on…depending on time of day and the placement of the easel…so to speak….the position of the sun in my life and the passion and yearning… and always the flash of love in some dark room…in some dark mood….
If Nina Simone were alive today, how would she respond or what would she say about the murder of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown?
3. of course she would speak out and rant in her own powerful voice as she would introduce a piece and she would compose…but perhaps in that mississippi goddamn approach and overview…..
i know there would be much weary deja vu edges around the words…
how many times…. bobby dylan wrote and sang….and in her time she was challenged and buffeted by countless racist unspeakables and the drumbeat of murders and injustice and genocide and…to borrow the title from ralph ginzburg’s seminal collection…100 years of lynchings….
If Langston Hughes was alive, what would he say about the rap music playing on the radio?
4. to read langston’s poetry out loud is to sing incipient rap and hiphop foundation rhythms and beats…concerns and struggles…i can only assume given his all-encompassing racial and world view…that he would embrace hiphop nation as he embraced each succeeding generation of african american poets and versifiers…perhaps he might chide now and then….but if you read one of his later collections…the panther and the lash….he was not left behind…inside his soul and within his political and literary times….
When you find yourself missing Virginia, how do you uplift your spirits?
5. i live in this house in yellow springs we built together in 1969 where we raised our two superb children…and i am surrounded by photos and medals and awards and rooms of floor-to-ceiling bookcases filled to overflowing with copies of her books…of files and speeches and her spirit and sense of pride and her striving for excellence and her unremitting honesty….
the w o r k is all around me and our values and dreams…realized and unrealized as well….
our intertwined histories…our lives together of course….
it is too simplistic to say i miss only h e r…what i miss is being able to walk into her office and sit down and talk about something…some aspect of a book project…some opinion on a family or personal matter…or listen to her read me the latest chapter from her latest book….
and all of that and much more has been internalized…all of our lives together and my life since her passing….i need silence to think and work and poet…(really….one of the many things she taught me is how to take from life experiences of all kinds and use that as food as fuel to make some kind of art)….and within that silence is her voice and her face….
….the struggle continues….
arnold adoff yellow springs, ohio
25 august 2014
ALICE FAYE DUNCAN is a school librarian who writes books for children and adults. Her newest book, Hello Sunshine—5 Habits to UNCLOUD Your Day is a happy pill for readers who want to keep themselves motivated and moving as they tackle the challenges of work, family, entrepreneurship and artistic ambitions. Website: www.uncloudyday.com Email: HelloAliceFaye@aol.com Twitter: @HelloAliceFaye