Holiday reading for the winter, torched and charred.
For me, the broad strokes go something like this: first there was James Baldwin, then Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison and then there was Oprah Winfrey – pop culture paradigms that embrace harmonious insights into the ways of folks, braving the psychological terrain, the seeming polarity of opposites and unafraid of emotional vulnerabilities. Nathan McCall is in there somewhere. Bernard Michael Beckwith too. Baldwin at the height of his powers, iconic of the Harlem Renaissance, penned The Fire Next Time to his 14-year-old nephew and Oprah has standardized the New Age with Super Soul Sunday on her OWN network.
But somewhere in between, at the nether, where Hip Hop inflects from the conscious brand to the New Age, ingrained with the continuum of words that heal, there has been Professor Michael Datcher. His 2002 New York Times Bestseller, Raising Fences, aptly sub-titled ‘A Black Man’s Love Story’, provided the rare opus magnum into the souls of folks, suggesting that emotional famines and towering ambitions are somehow one. His poetic prose giving definition to the contours of love, more often than not, a caricature in mainstream media of the black man. Fences showcased famous passages as:
I’ve been obsessed with being a husband and father since I was seven years old. Quiet as it’s kept, many young Black men have the same obsession. Picket-fence dreams. A played-out metaphor in the white community but one still secretly riding the bench in Black neighborhoods nationwide… [But we young Black men] Hide Huxtable-family dreams in the corner: Can’t let someone catch us hoping that hard.
Datcher’s prose is pulling from somewhere in the 5th dimension (because its not here yet) at an inflection point of hurts, scars, memories, hopes and wishes. Datcher is a soul man on a mission impolitic to the ideology of racism but soaked in our collective humanity:
“The homes looked like houses on TV. They were big and brand new,” he wrote in his memoir. “They had large, grassy front yards with basketballs, Big Wheels, bats, and bikes just lying out there…. I realized it wasn’t just me who was excited about the whole scene. The bus was filled with mostly black kids who’d never seen an environment like this.”
I remember courting my wife and reading passages like these, particularly the poetic interludes, as affirmation that our dreams were a not some negative exposure to mainstream America but in fact our destination. “That’s beautiful”, she would say, eyes moist, with characteristic brevity.
Yes. We are living our own Datcher dreams with a cow colored Jack Russell Fox Terrier, our son, head as large as the Egyptian eternity, in a neighborhood where the moon hangs purposefully low and the stars as chandeliers in a near perfect dark valley, uninterrupted by jagged sky scrapers.
Indeed, “Quiet as it is kept”—I find myself in a bedroom community in Southern California, buzzing with the holiday afterglow of lamp posts and beetle eyed vehicles moving carefully through a thick holiday fog. Raising Fences was the lamp post—‘pssst, over here brother’ Datcher seemed to be saying.
Yes. What Datcher dreams cover so well, or recover, throughout his work are the metaphysical drifts that oscillate between gentle emotion and encouragement, brutal honesty, jagged psychology and correcting visions; the space conveniently crowded with warm rememberings, iced hopes, thawed convictions and insistent dreams—all with a characteristic knowing and confidence, infused with a benignity that suggests we are all connected—all family.
The co-editor of 1996’s Tough Love: Cultural Criticism & Familial Observations on the life and death of Tupac Shakur (Black Words Series) Professor Datcher, observed in a recent interview with Los Angeles’ Peter Bowes and on the radio show Audio Boom, “As we know, Black bodies have a way of effecting and affecting people around them. We have this power to affect people in ways that seem to make them respond in irrational ways. Especially folks who carry guns and who wear badges. So even when people are unarmed, it seems that the embodied black subject has a way of frightening people.” Perhaps policemen, the “law”, took over the role of slave masters and KKK after abolition, enforcing institutional racism? Perhaps that is why policeman Darren Wilson felt in his interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, “I did my job that day”, after describing the slain youth as “a demon”?
The first time I sat down with Michael Datcher in Culver City in 2005, I was a contributing writer for the Black Book Review (www.qbr.com). Even back then, he was working on Americus, set in East St. Louis, 13 miles from and foreshadowing Ferguson, a story tracing our historic and metaphorical roots to Egyptian civilization and the American story of initiation, intersecting at the vertices of race and violence.
I recall in our hour-long conversation, big brother Datcher ‘s spirituality mapping the internal struggles that define the real world strife that we are all currently embroiled in, from President Obama to demonstrations and riots in the streets of Oakland, Los Angeles, Chicago, Paris, Seoul and Furgeson. So, I am anticipating a holiday reading, meditation and the possibilities within a Professor Datcher project titled Americus—particularly in light of the recent verdict or lack thereof; no less than a month before the film Selma commemorates our recent history which is still present and for which past has been prologue; no less as our American nightmares are broadcast for a worldwide audience.
Datcher has noted in another radio station interview with Val Zavala of KCET that African-American men seem to find themselves trapped in a pop-culture-cemented reputation as tough or hard, but “what’s hard is being vulnerable,” he asserted. “What’s hard is telling the truth. What’s hard is not running away.”
His radio interview with Audio Boom continued, “That was much of my experience as a young man. Just walking the streets, going to school. Although I was a very educated man, a good student—I went to Berkeley eventually as an undergraduate in the Bay Area—I found that my education did not shine through my epidermis.”
Yes, From Emmitt Till to Trayvon Martin to Mike Brown—from Tamir, Michael, Eric, Jonathan, Sean, Amadou, Oscar, Edward to Anthony, black sons and genius gunned down before realizing their prime; from Montgomery to LA riots to Ferguson—we are all embroiled in the inferno. Then… Blackout on Black Friday, singe the economy. Internal, private and quiet struggles with hatred, resources, racism, rage, self-esteem, the enemy are broadcast in the world, real time. I guess it is the fire this winter, then charred soil. Makes me want to howl. I’m searching for insights and grasping for my own perspective on Furgeson and fallen son Mike Brown.
How can love of community, love of self, love of family play into mid-western Ferguson and America in the coming months? As vitiligo begins to set identical twins Asar and Set Americus apart from one another, is there symbolism for the American metaphorical twins, Black and White? How does the brand of racism in St. Louis differ from racism plaguing the nation ad nausea? Can a heartfelt and human approach to the loaded issues of race and racism create a different outcome hereto un-experienced in American history? Can we listen to one another? Can we feel one another? Will we heal? Heal correctly this time? What happens when circumstances don’t change and violence escalates, when we consistently refuse to learn from our history (definition of damnation)? What about the Midwest inspires the stories of Mike Brown, Asar and Set Americus, Miles Davis and Pastor Mark E. Whitlock? As Michael Datcher approaches another coming of age story, how much of his story is America’s collective story as we reach for the future in the 21st Century? Do our children really have to contend with all this non-sense with theirs—I truly did not believe I would have to with mine.
If the Loyola Marymount professor’s former work is any true indicator, his novel Americus will supply unflinching insights as to why with knowings – knowing we can find passage over the seeming impasse of race relations in America, definitively – Yes. I am waiting to hear some iteration of Michael Datcher’s insights, just like on KCET radio in 2007 when he answered the interviewer –
“You raised the question … ‘Do black people really want to have families?’ That is typical of how black people are perceived,” he reflected. I see UC Berkeley Professor Emeritus of Sociology, Harry Edwards, nodding in quiet ascension. “You know, black people are human as well. It’s the demonizing of black people or the lack of an honest reflection of what black people are like.”
Until that institutional racism is burned to the ground; so that we love ourselves so much…
Professor Michael Datcher on book tour with Americus this winter. Official website of Michael Datcher is www.michaeldatcher.com.