As some of you may or may not know, I’m Haitian-American.
I don’t make this proclamation to be facetious or sarcastic. I make it as merely a statement of fact: I’m black.
It is what it is.
But I do bring it up because when I write, my race is not always evident. The person that I am is not always easily seen.
I usually prefer it that way.
But it is interesting, because strangers who are just becoming familiar with my work and getting to know me have said to me on more than one occasion after having read my writing, they didn’t realize that I was black.
As if that’s a problem. Thank goodness I have a thick skin, otherwise I might be offended.
I’ve written about this before, but I’ll say it again: I don’t think my race should define my writing. My writing should define my writing. My stories should speak for themselves, and my verses should sing their own songs. It is always my goal to tell a good story, as prose or as poetry, and I succeed at this objective as I can. I try to leave myself out of it as much as possible.
However, every once in a while, a little bit of me will peek through, and a little bit of my history, my person, my culture, my thoughts or my beliefs will make their way onto the page. I don’t think that this is unusual. I think it would be hard to write otherwise if I didn’t leave some of myself behind, exposed for the world to see.
But it is telling when someone reads something I’ve written, and make the connection between my words and my race, and they are surprised as a result.
I bring this up because my good friend, Francis F. Keating, (who, through two posts now, I hope you are getting to know), is also African-American.
Francis is also black.
But I think to the casual reader, many people wouldn’t know it by the poems he’s shared thus far.
In the work we’ve seen to date, Francis presents verses with an old-world, very classically structured styles and rhymes. In my opinion, they read like great literature and have a sense of timelessness about them.
Plus, it’s just a great voice that he uses to spin his verses.
I’ve told him on occasion that I expect to see these poems in high school English textbooks somewhere, being memorized and recited by thousands of students. He likes to laugh and disagree (he’s too humble to say otherwise) but I believe what I’m saying is true. His poems transcend race to focus only on a story, to speak only about the human condition, to espouse the many trials and tribulations to which we as individuals can all relate and understand. What English teacher wouldn’t flock to that theme?
As writers, I think there is value at being able to write about a variety of topics in a myriad of styles that move beyond who you are in order to capture an experience common to everyone. Following Francis’ lead, I’ve written many poems where I have tried to do just that. I like to think I’ve hit the mark once or twice on that account, and certainly I believe Francis has it in the bag.
However, sometimes you have to write to share your unique self to the world, the common experience be damned. Sometimes it is all about you, about sharing your story or your history and conveying those words that are an extension of you as a person.
In this case, I’m talking about writing black.
I don’t think this would be any different if I were Jewish or Hispanic or Chinese. I believe this wouldn’t matter if I were a northerner, a southerner, from the East Coast or the West. This would be the same if I my native tongue were English, French, Russian or Farsi, or if I were tall or short, fat or skinny, full of happiness or full of grief. No matter what I could be, my own life experience, whatever it is, however I perceive it, would eventually appear on the page. Of course, I have my own ideas about what I want to address when I write about topics that are afro-centric in nature, but that is the nature of the human experience: it is unique to everyone. Even when we share the experience, our perspectives will make it singular to who we are.
Certainly, I believe this is true when Francis writes; he has authored quite a few poems where he addresses his own experiences and perspectives as a black man, and creates a voice and a style to reflect that. In one of his newer poems, Ghetto Smoke, he shows just how diverse and broad his range can be. It speaks not only to the breadth of skill that he possesses with his mighty pen, but also to who he is and what he sees are problems and ills that our community faces. Always literary, always poetic, but very raw and gritty, very streetwise and urban.
Ghetto Smoke is like that. It flows almost like a song—a hip-hop anthem, if you will—but forever dark in both the reality it presents and the story he tells. But it is as much as part of him as is the rest of his poetry—as it should be, since we all like to share a part of ourselves in the stories we write.
And as a black man, he sometimes likes to write black.
JoJo was born smokin’.
Soon as he come out his mommas womb
His daddy popped a cigarette in his mouth
“Smoke up mutha fucka
You ain’t got time for mother’s milk.
Hope you like sleepin’ on broken glass
Cuz we don’t know shit about silk.
The way of the devil is all that we have.
So buck up my nigga, hold tight to your brass.
The wheelin’ and dealin’ so thick
That the smoke makes you choke.
Our burdens a bitch on the yoke.”
So JoJo behaved like a young nigga should.
He smoked up dem smokes
And gave love to the hood.
By ten he was smokin’
Two packs of fuck you every day.
Young JoJo’s a player that way.
By twelve he was cuttin’ the yoyo for slice.
By twenty that nigga was rollin’ in ice.
The roll of the dice
The smell of the kill on the steel
Joe smoked up that shit with appeal.
Pop! Pop! In the head for a fool talkin’ shit.
Mad hate to his God for the fate that he spit
“No shame in my game”
Was the blunt that he hit with a smile
JoJo smoked on that shit for a while.
In the cut
With a strut
“Gotta problem with me!
COPYRIGHT 2012 © FRANCIS F. KEATING. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.