Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Journey: Part 4--SEEK Pride Day,Cadences of Liberation, October 20, 1014, Queens College

Going over my notes with Dr June Bobb, my colleague for so many years, another impossible farewell
Poem for June
It was you who first islanded me,
who showed me how to step from
bony spine to bony spine.
Waters of history and endless time
lapping at volcanic determination.
You freed for me all the lyric possibilities
of island memory.
Of how to eat a mango, the poet, your friend, 
Of how to find the beaten flesh and hunker down
in caves deep in mountains' sides
Until the tyrants drowned in those
blue seas ringed by flaming trees.

For twenty years we scoured texts,
flesh and seed to feed
our students' quest.
Now I am 73
and live upon an island continent
Far from where I started.
but I have my island legs,
and more, your voices
deep within me.

From   1965 to 1995 I taught writing in the Queens College SEEK Program. Here I found worlds of literature and friendships as profound as my work with the Lesbian Herstory Archives. When Mark Levy, another old SEEK colleague and veteran of the Freedom Schools who now works on creating the Queens College Civil Rights Archives, told the program I would be in New York one more time, Dr. Norka Blackman-Richards, Assistant Director of SEEK, worked out a day's schedule for me so I could address the students, visit classes and take in dear faces. These are matter- of- fact words for such a day.

Schedule: 10:05--11:00 Dr Rodway's English 110 Class
                11:10-12:00 Meeting with Assistant Provost Dr June Bobb
                12:15-1:30 SEEK Pride Day: Generation 18
                1:40-2:40 Dr. Rodway's English 110 Class
                3:00-4:30 Small reception with SEEK Faculty and Staff

Our SEEK student guides for the day, Janet Williams and Gatrie Samaroo and how they stuck with us through all the tumult of the day. How such students grace Queens College and how welcoming they were to us both.

Ciceley, more formally known as Dr Rodway, a poet, an old friend, for years we had laughed and struggled with the challenges of our SEEK lives, a program always fighting for its life, a student body fighting for its life, Dr Rodway still marching as she did last weekend in Washington, D.C. in honor of the lives of black men, including her two sons. One more time, she gave me the chance to greet students, to listen to their journeys with the task of writing, to look another generation in the face, kind enough to let me make contact for such a short time, one more time I had a piece of chalk in my hand, and there on the board took shape again that sentence that contains, as I said for years, the most powerful use of the semicolon in the English language. From The Narrative of Frederick Douglass (19845): "You have seen how a man was made a slave; now you will see how a slave is made a man." The journey of a life time in that semicolon turn, of a  nation still caught in the juncture. The sheer joy of the time I had with these students, with their questions, with their brave explorations, with Dr Rodway making all possible, with La Professoressa sitting there, seeing Joan, the teacher, a joy so deep, feeling again all that SEEK had given me, the poetry of hope and of struggle, of meaning. How grateful I am. For all.

The hall filled with another generation of SEEK students

In a small reception room, in the SEEK Building, Lloyd Delaney Hall, such stories lie behind these simple words, I met once again comrades. The SEEK motto: "Learn to Struggle, Struggle to Learn."

Alem. dear Alem, still teaching social sciences

Looking at pictures of the old days with Frank S. Franklin, the director of the Program for many years now. I knew us all before we went gray.

Good-bye, my dear friends,

Notes for my talk on the anniversary of SEEK (1964--): The Poetry of SEEK

In Memory of Mordine Mallory, the first SEEK librarian, George Priestley, social science teacher, Daniel Chiremba, social science teacher, Sam Floyd, English teacher, Ruth Siegel, English teacher

Poets who have had a connection to SEEK as teachers, as students: Nikki Giovanni, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Alex DeVaugh

What does it mean to be born in liberationist times--when national scripts were being refused, when the usual insults  to race, class, genders and sexuality were answered with grassroots communal assertions of full human dignity. There is a cadence to such years as gave SEEK life, that live on with you, the cadence of asking questions of assumed power and privilege, of seeking connections between peoples in their struggle to create new histories. My life shines with the voices that live in my head and heart, that I first heard in my SEEK years, 1965-1995--the voices of my colleagues and the writers we found to teach us what was needed to be understood. To be educated to ask questions of power, outside of ourselves and sometimes even of our own, to master the  skills that allow the decipherment of texts and to produce ow own complex analysis--to find a way to look towards the future with a better vision while understanding the tensions and pretensions of the past, all concerns that connect SEEK to its liberationist past and to your futures in the 21st century. Forgive--when you are 74, you sometimes speak funny, in sweeping waves of the heart. 
Shirley Chisholm, 1960s

History notes: SEEK created, as a five year experiment, to quench the determination of young black and Puerto Rican women and men to get a higher education--the street rebellions of the 60s--Watts, Detroit, New York--social change movements of the 60s--people believing that history could be changed and made again by the force of their determination to say no more. In the streets and in the halls of politics. Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005) one of these social activist and progressive politicians who co-authored the legislation that brought SEEK into being--daughter of West Indian immigrants, the first black woman elected to congress, the first woman to run for President of the United States, a grassroots organizer who who in the 60s hired only women to be on her staff, who said in 1965,"Women in this country must be revolutionaries, we must refuse to accept the old traditional roles and stereotypes," who said "I want history to remember me not just as the first black woman elected to congress or to make a bid for the presidency of the US but as a black woman who lived in the 20st century and dared to be herself." Her political vision--wrote and worked for a bill that secured unemployment insurance for domestic workers and daycare providers, obtained federal funding for daycare facilities and campaigned for a higher minimum wage. Her campaign motto, "Unbought and Unbossed." all in the early 60s.

Poetry is the language of dreams and deep endeavors, of faces turned to the sun while in the shadows of failed human visions. Poetry lives on the human body as much as it lives on the page; it lives in the landscapes of a people's yearning to be free, complex and happy, it lives in the language of resistance and commemoration, poetry speaks every time we honor each others' fullness of dignity. Poetry is the enrichment of our senses to all the possibilities of life. This was SEEK to me. I might have left SEEK in 1995 but SEEK has never left me. The cadences of our life together-- students,colleagues, administrators, and in the texts I first had to learn so I could bring their poetries into the classroom-- have never left me. I can still trace the curves of Karintha in my mind, the creation of Harlem Renaissance poet, Jean Toomer, find her as my class did in the undulating rhythms of her name that so held a woman's tragedy, My spirit still jumps for the moon, still shining with the force of Zora Neale Hurston's power of story telling, I still tell myself, :things do not fall apart," hearing both words of Chinua Achebe and Lucille Clifton, things do not fall apart but are held in lines, in the heart. Bessie Head's "Collector of Treasures" still trembles with the fierce tenderness of her life, both of her characters and her own. The works we studied together, with their anger and determination, "do you really know me," asks Nicolas Guillen, all of me, not just the Spanish part of me but my African grandfather lost in the seas of the middle passage. James Baldwin looking at his father, telling us that history must be confronted, all the old countries where so much was taken, but which keeps parts of us alive. Langston Hughes, his soul deep as ancient rivers, walks with me, his tenderness and dedication. and always, the cadences of Frederick Douglass, telling us in 1880, that the discussion about character and not color must go on, that "where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe. This discussion will go on." Douglass' cadences of refusal and of higher visions, of political insights and historical understandings, his poetry of what was taken and what must never be given up,  stay with his readers for a lifetime. You too will find, write, create your own cadences of  insight, of indignation and of hope.

SEEK is the living will of a generation of students who were determined to learn all the poetics they could--critical social thinking under the tutelage of George Priestley, Daniel Chiremba, of mathematics, of languages, of international texts singing of complex geographies and shifting borders.
I stand her today with deep gratitude for being a small part of the wonder we call the SEEK Program, that meeting place of beginnings and the refusal of deprivations, of big dreamings and hard hard work, where voices leaped off pages into our hearts, where thinkers, teachers and students alike, broke new ground while valuing the gifts of their own cultural richnesses. We made and make a world here a community of respected differences and complex solidarities, struggling always to learn both the text and how best to use them in this 21st century. It seems that all that stands at the center of SEEK is needed now more then ever in this country, in this world. Thank you for the privilege of speaking with you.

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