Transition 114: Transition: The Magazine of Africa and the Diaspora

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Published three times per year by Indiana University Press for the Hutchins Center at Harvard University, Transition is a unique forum for the freshest, most compelling ideas from and about the black world. Since its founding in Uganda in 1961, the magazine has kept apace of the rapid transformation of the African Diaspora and has remained a leading forum of intellectual debate. This issue of Transition-"Gay Nigeria"-pays tribute to those who "agitate the establishment." Gay Nigeria grapples with anti-gay sentiment in Africa through the case-in-point of Nigeria's recent Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, and the global backlash against it. Ayo Sogunro, Rudolf Pell Gaudio, and Davis Mac-Iyalla introduce readers to the complexities of being queer in Nigeria. The editors also remember Amiri Baraka (1934-2014), championed by Molefi Kete Asante as "a righteous defender of human freedom." Komozi Woodard, Ishmael Reed, and Baraka's daughter Kellie Jones add their recollections of the controversial poet-activist. The issue is further graced by tales quintessentially diasporic: a Ghanaian slave-fort turned five-star resort by a British ex-pat; a West African merchant-missionary returning former slaves to his Gold Coast homeland; and tips on how to freak out your American roommate. With incarceration rates of black Americans continuing to soar, Micol Seigel wants to know who makes bank in the lucrative world of bail. Also, is American cinema ready for a black woman protagonist? And finally, enjoy an interview with director Steve McQueen.

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Amiri Baraka and the Music of Life

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UNFORTUNATELY, THE NEW York Times neglected most of the materials that I provided their reporter for the Amiri Baraka obituary. Fortunately, they included Maya Angelou’s assessment that Amiri Baraka was the world’s greatest living poet. However, it is difficult to account for the newspaper of record that neglected to mention that, by 1995, Amiri Baraka was officially inducted into this country’s most prestigious cultural assembly, the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Was that a case of criminal neglect or a case of tragic blindness?

He advised that students imaginatively learn the art of maneuver in the Black Revolt; then he referred students to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

A few years ago, Baraka invited me to his sunny breakfast nook; that is the room that housed his portrait standing amidst an overwhelmingly white crowd of the 250 men and women honored in the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1995. He pointed to the few dark dots in the group portrait, indicating where he and Toni Morrison were standing as a token gesture to racial diversity in the constellation of American genius represented in that esteemed academy.

 

LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka and Me

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THE TENSIONS BETWEEN Amiri Baraka and me began when the late Calvin Hernton, Amiri (then LeRoi Jones), and I were standing at the bar at The Five Spot in 1964 and I told him that his poetry was weak. I had a hard time getting through a poem called “The New Sheriff,” which had been published in The Evergreen Review. Obviously angry, he left the bar in a huff. It was then that I understood the power that Amiri had in downtown Bohemia. Having overheard my remark, the owner of The Five Spot barred me from the club. Amiri was good for their business. His jazz columns brought customers to the club. Later, Baraka dismissed these early poems himself. Blamed them on his being under the sway of “a white aesthetic.”

Amiri (then LeRoi Jones), and I were standing at the bar at The Five Spot in 1964 and I told him that his poetry was weak.

In 1964, some members of the Umbra Poetry Workshop read at Columbia University with Amiri and Allen Ginsberg. After the reading, Amiri approached me and brought up The Five Spot encounter. I still have a newspaper photo of Amiri bawling me out. At that time, he was still LeRoi Jones. He could have remained LeRoi Jones and continued to be “The Emperor of the Lower East Side,” the title given to him by The Herald Tribune as a result of his connections to the Beat publicity machine. These were poets who were featured in mass magazines like Life and Time.

 

The Staccato Master of the World

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AMIRI BARAKA, A brilliant light that shined brightest when in the middle of battling for his people’s rights, has taken the eternal sleep. His manifest destiny was to make racial criminals and political thugs angry and uncomfortable with a staccato style that imitated jazz music in its isolation of certain notes that appeared to be detached and of a shortened duration. This is why the poems he wrote agitated the establishment and made him a righteous defender of human freedom; they were poems with words that actualized energy and power and, more than most poets, he was a student of sound like the old bald-headed Egyptian priests who knew that articulation of the voice was the chief miracle of human mystery. He was a free man and, in that freedom, he was free to be bold, to be wrong, to be strong and to be adventurous, and to be right at times. He knew that freedom came with a price but that price was never too costly for one’s sense of purpose. Always capable of self-correction, Baraka’s ability to take the dagger of his words and strike the blow for truth as he saw it was uncanny and a part of his genius. We will miss him and his poems and plays and essays that provoked a generation to be better humans, to unleash hell on those whose fat bellies snuffed out the souls of the poor. Despite his detractors, or those who believed that he was merely this-or-that, he was a socialist, feminist, womanist, nationalist, and culturalist who sought to bring equality and justices to the world. Nothing anti-African passed him without a comment and nothing was so close to him as his battle with his own intellect. A great spirit has passed this way!

 

Witness

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OF HIS RECENT collaborators, none can claim greater or more intimate knowledge of Amiri Baraka than can his daughter, Kellie Jones. A powerhouse in her own right, Dr. Kellie Jones is Associate Professor in the Art History and Archaeology department and at the Institute for Research in African American Studies (IRAAS) at Columbia University. For her book EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art (2011), Jones collaborated with members of her family—including her father, Amiri Baraka; her mother, the poet and memoirist Hettie Jones; and her sister, the essayist Lisa Jones—to reflect on how her experience growing up in a family of artists gave her unique insight into the place of art in the black community. Most recently, Jones collaborated with Teresa Carbone to mount the exhibition Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties at the Brooklyn Museum (March 7–July 6, 2014). Together with its excellent exhibition catalogue, it highlights the impact of the Black Arts Movement, as well as work from and about the Civil Rights Movement. In the following pages, Jones is interviewed by Dr. Deborah Willis, Chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. They discuss the impact of Jones’s family on her scholarship and curatorial work, as well as the inspiration for Witness.

 

One More Nation Bound in Freedom

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THE TITLE OF this piece is partly lifted from the first stanza of the Nigerian national anthem. The unintended irony in the phrase is a demonstration of Nigeria’s dalliance with contrasting philosophies and a generic, if simplified, explanation for the emergence of anti-LGBT legislation in the country, despite the absence of any public crisis on the issue.

Nigeria has always suffered from an overdose of ironic circumstances: this is evident from its inception as a geopolitical amalgamation of two distinct sociopolitical administrations—now bound in freedom—to the current international perception of Nigerians as a resourceful yet not-quite-trustworthy people. This irony permeates every stratum of Nigerian psychology, creating contrasting influences and generating continuous tension between the energetic developmental resources available to the country and the negative fallouts from its historical—traditional, colonial, and national—biases, finally culminating in a social stasis—an orbital lock, you may say—that has left Nigeria at a sociopolitical maturity level no higher than that which it possessed on October 1, 1960, when it gained its independence.

 

Dire Straights in Nigeria

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Come to Soul Lounge this Thursday night—the night before Valentine’s Day. Bring your wife! Bring your deputy wife! Your assistant wife! Your sins will be forgiven!

NIGERIAS HETEROSEXUALS HAVE it rough. This may sound facetious in light of the ways homosexuals have been targeted since the Nigerian government passed the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act earlier this year. But the challenges facing straight Nigerians are key to making sense of the physical and symbolic violence currently being done to people accused of being queer. The Anti-Gay Law, as it is called, criminalizes membership in gay organizations as well as same-sex marriage. Though condemned by human rights advocates, it enjoys massive popular support. Politicians, clerics, and ordinary citizens defend it as consistent with the nation’s cultural and religious values, and several observers have noted with satisfaction that opposition to homosexuality is one of the few issues that Nigeria’s Muslims and Christians can agree on.

 

Changing Attitudes through the Example of Jesus

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DAVIS MAC-IYALLA is one of the leading figures in the Nigerian struggle for LGBT rights. His perspective is especially unique because of his commitment to pursuing gay rights from within the framework of Christianity. In 2005, he founded Changing Attitude Nigeria as a branch of Changing Attitude England, an umbrella organization that works within the Anglican Communion (which includes the Church of England and the American Episcopal Church) to raise awareness about the struggles of LGBT people to achieve equality, both legally and in the Church itself. Because of his outspoken advocacy and public identity as a gay Christian man, Mac-Iyalla was forced in 2008 to seek asylum in the UK, after receiving a number of death threats in Nigeria and Togo. Despite now living in exile, Mac-Iyalla continues to be active in Changing Attitude Nigeria, and is more committed than ever to the struggle for LGBT equality in Africa. The editors of Transition were able to speak with Mac-Iyalla from London, where he now makes his home. In this candid interview, he talks about his experiences growing up gay in the Nigerian Anglican Church, the newly-passed Nigerian Anti-Gay Law, and his predictions for the future of the global Anglican Communion.

 

Ode to the 99 cent store

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You a kind of utopia,
you know. God’s garage.

Counterhegemonic magic,
how you tug on dollar bill
until it becomes open field,
how you mock semiotics openly,
proffering products which often belie
your professed mission, your wondrous
intentions, these too-expensive toasters, fragile
dishes, ironing boards that make mom appeal to American
Express as backup, her escape route from unplanned shame.

You ain’t have to do us like that. But I peeped game. I know you just like everyone else, hoping to hustle your way off this ziggurat block, all these poor folks stacked on top of each other like tropes. Your true currency is the cheer of children, the love of learners under duress, black & white notebooks I still call upon in hopes that these, my most harried dreams might have rest, shelter when smartphones give in, fading to moonless wan like everything else around here. You persist. You tenacious meditation on excess. You candy bars & batteries when pilot lights kissed us no more & Peanut Chews were the best high we knew or could afford. You smorgasbord.

 

On Rage

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Be honest. Who’s unafraid

of the Big, Bad, Bigger

Thomas? The omnipresence

of Knockout games & flash mobs

& black boys

in clothes that don’t fit, droves that won’t quit

stealing what can’t be replaced: guiltless sleep,

the comfort of a block when its blank.

Inner-city

becomes code word for wars the State made from scratch.

Coming up, our mantra was I’m not the one

& we weren’t until we were. Until smooth talk

could no longer keep a policeman’s hands

in brackets.

I don’t remember unlearning

the love & lilt of a first swing,

what Ms. Reilly said

in 6th grade that defused me.

But by 8th it was undeniable:

these hands were best suited to soft gestures: the silly give

of art class clay,

all those quick missives to fairest Rosalinda:

my awkward cursive,

like a swan’s neck

against the paper.

Still, this is where I keep the chimera

 

Castles

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ON A FALL day in 2002, Robert Fidler jumped into his excavator and began piling up bales of straw. He stacked them, one at a time, until he built a forty foot wall around his old cow shed in Redhill, Surrey, south of London. Then he cut a small arch into the straw and embedded a doorway into the wall. Over the next four years, he moved back and forth through that door with bricks and mortar, secretly building a dream home for his wife Linda. Four years later, he jumped back into the excavator and tore down the walls of straw to reveal Honeycrock Castle, a two-turret, four-bedroom dream home complete with vaulted ceilings, a duck pond, and a cannon.

Honeycrock Castle has attracted national attention from the media in the UK, and not just because Robert built it as a labour of love. As it turns out, Fidler built his castle on a green belt, in violation of agricultural reserve regulations. The Reigate and Banstead Town Council was not amused. Fidler, they claimed, had already stretched the meaning of land use bylaws by expanding a reservoir for livestock into a decorative pond, and they considered the construction of his new home to be a “blatant attempt at deception.” Fidler responded by saying that his house was perfectly legal because no one had complained about it during the mandated four-year waiting period. Not surprisingly, the case of the “straw bale castle” has become a cause célèbre in the United Kingdom, pitting libertarians and romantics against pragmatists and environmentalists. The building is still standing, but it is marked for demolition. Fidler has publicly declared that “an Englishman is entitled to have his castle,” and he has appealed the demolition order all the way to the European Court of Human Rights. As a steadfast Christian, he believes that God is involved in his case: “This house will never be knocked down. This is a beautiful house that has been lovingly created. I will do whatever it takes to keep it.”

 

The Chief Sam Movement, A Century Later

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ONE HUNDRED YEARS ago this summer, the SS Liberia set sail from Galveston Island, Texas, for the Gold Coast in West Africa. The boat transported a mere sixty passengers—most of them former slaves-turned-homesteaders from the new state of Oklahoma—but carried the dreams of thousands of African American exodusters. A few days earlier, hundreds paid admission to board the Liberia, to touch the brasses of the steamship “owned by Negroes” at the height of Jim Crow. At the helm stood a complicated West African missionary and global entrepreneur named Chief Alfred Sam. Sam had first come to the United States as a merchant trading in timber, rubber, and cocoa, but soon found himself organizing African American farmers and landowners who hoped to emigrate from the U.S. and settle his homeplace in the Akyem region of the Gold Coast. Meanwhile, many denied the movement’s reality. W. E. B. Du Bois proclaimed in the February 1914 Crisis, “There is no steamship in New York building for the African trade and owned by Negroes.”

 

Cento for Césaire

ePub

Where Africa was a case of the unspoken, Europe was a case of that which is endlessly speaking—endlessly speaking us.

—STUART HALL

strength lines me up on the shadowless meridian

sweltering pile of chipped plates

hard night long pole night without stars

it is the hour for throwing a desiccated delta across my face

and why not go on excite me the first step of chaos

harsh tom-toms that maintain on high

my dwelling of water of wind of iodine of stars

dwelling made of an epidemic of drums

dwelling made of water glimpsed upon waking

dwelling made of animal skins and eyelids

the raw bellowing the caiman emits

at the outset of an earthquake

as your solstice shakes me strikes me devours me

there I am in my dwelling in your face

right where my mutilations are other limbs grow back

watching the world explode at the option of my silence

*all lines adapted from Aimé Césaire’s Solar Throat Slashed (Wesleyan: 2011).

 

The Silences of Bob Kaufman: A Cento

ePub

the truth is an empty bowl of rice

truth is a burning guitar

it takes so much to be nothing

long green journeys into sounds of death

you get off at Fifty-ninth Street forever

eternity has wet sidewalks

all those well-meaning people

who gave me obscure books

when what I really needed

was a good meal

ordinary people, that is, people whose annihilation

is handled on a corporate scale

they have memorized the pimples

on your soul

whether I am a poet or not, I use

fifty dollars’ worth of air

every day, cool

dear people, let us eat Jazz

so we sat down on our bloodsoaked

garments and listened to Jazz

one thousand saxophones infiltrate the city

my face is covered with maps of dead nations

the poet nailed to the bone of the world

I love him because his eyes leak

in most cases, a sane hermit will beat

a good big man

I think of Chaplin and roll a mental cigarette

 

Hypothecation

ePub

IF I TOLD you this was a ghost story, would you want to read it? If I said it was a serious academic treatment of prisons and profits, aimed to moderate the specter of privatization, would you drop it cold or grip it tighter? What if I have simply written you a letter—a wistful rumination on loss and the perception of loss, on truth and rumor, and the deep truth that resides within rumor?

I mourn the loss of my former student, Trey, the person who led me to this topic and proposed that we explore this particular truth. Trey enrolled in a class I taught at the Putnamville medium-security correctional facility in Greencastle, Indiana, and then became a part of the ongoing discussion group we called a “Think Tank,” which he engaged with his acrid insight. Meanwhile, he argued his own legal appeal pro se, and won, and after nine out of a twenty-year bid, moved himself beyond the walls. When Trey got out, we chatted via email and met, once, for lunch at an outdoor café table on an artsy Indy thoroughfare, then strolled the avenue and browsed a bookstore where the middle-aged white ladies behind the counter trembled at his presence.

 

The Great Convert

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The fangs of a tiger and the mouth of a mosquito are capable of the same harm.

—IGBO PROVERB

IN MANY OF his sermons, Fr. Paul talked about the process of sanctification. He would stand on the altar, his arms half-concealed in his flowing white robe with yellow stripes, and his steps lissom as he moved about the altar, speaking and gesticulating while the congregation sat in silence as if hypnotized. Although it is now nine years past, the memory of these things is so sharp in my mind that I can still vividly recall the exact words he often used: “It is a process, a divine process akin to that of childbearing. Christ tears down the once imperforate veil of sin with the tempered force of his divine presence. And this,” he would say with great assurance, letting his eyes dart from row to row, “is the way of sanctification; of transformation.”

His own transformation began one Sunday morning in March 1984, when a band of armed robbers stormed our church during a service. Mass was going on and Fr. Paul was about to bless the sacrament, his hands raised over the bowl containing the Holy Communion, when the service was interrupted by a blast of gunshots. Within a breath, armed men entered the cathedral from all the entrances, screaming: “All of you get down. Get down! Down!” There was an immediate response as the congregation of over two hundred people flattened on the paved floor. One of the men pointed his gun to the roof again and, after a thunderous roar, I saw a bullet perforate one of the blades of the ceiling fan. From where I lay on my back near the front seat of the auditorium, I watched the hole in the now dented fan blade swirl like a revolving eye. Although the entire congregation had lain on the floor, Fr. Paul did not. He stood firmly behind the wooden podium, his hands on the Bible half-opened in front of him. As he would tell me later, although he’d found himself trembling, he’d felt as though two long nails had been driven through his feet into the firm ground, rendering him immobile. This defiance surprised the bandits.

 

How to Freak Out Your American Roommate

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THE FIRST TIME you meet your first roommate, you are jetlagged from the nineteen hours of flying to the United States. You barely register the names of his mother and father and siblings as he introduces them to you. But you do register how friendly and chatty they all seem to be. It strikes you, also, how everything he says appears to end with an inflection, so that he always seems to be asking a question. And when his family leaves, he tells you how he thinks it’s awesome? That you are like from Africa? And everything? You do not understand why being from Africa is “awesome,” but you smile and say thank you. He tells you then that he is from Maine, and when you reciprocate by telling him that this is “awesome,” he looks at you with a mildly puzzled smile and asks why. “Exactly,” you do not say.

You are wide awake that night when he begins to unpack his suitcases. And since you have nothing else to do, you ask if there is anything you can do to help. You install his television and his refrigerator, both of you, and he tells you that, although he understands you might want to buy your own fridge, he has brought a relatively big one so that you might share his, since he figured you couldn’t possibly bring one all the way from Africa. You tell him—and you really mean it—that this is very considerate of him, that it’d be nice to share his fridge. You can use his electric kettle as well, he says, and his printer, too. And, oh, his mom had gotten him a lot of snacks—too many, in fact—so you can help yourself to those as well. “Oh, nice!” you respond, laughing.

 

“Is Viola Davis in it?”

ePub

2013 WAS LAUDED as a “Renaissance Year” for black films within the Hollywood movie industry. Notably, the films 42, Fruitvale, The Butler, 12 Years a Slave, and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom shared the quality of having an extraordinary black male character at the center of their stories. With characters ranging from an athlete, a victim of police brutality, a butler, a slave, and a political leader, the diversity of black male roles is telling. Each film set out to represent a real person: each opened with that most powerful of filmic premises, “Based on a True Story.” Each of these historical and male-dominated or male-centered stories is the kind of film that—for better or worse—informs audiences about important African American topics in place of classroom lectures, lesson plans, and, most importantly, books.

Each film also subtly sent the message that black men can play great and complex roles, while black women can continue to play marginalized roles as their girlfriends or wives. It is rarely, if ever, that we see a film in which a black woman is the central character and her husband or partner plays the sidekick or emotional supporter to her goals. Even in the imaginary world, there is no black Katniss Everdeen of the Hunger Games trilogy, who would heroically lead all of the men around her. We continue to only “see” black women in film when their images are peripheral—which is another way of saying that black women are barely seen in historical films.

 

12 Years a Slave

ePub

WHEN THE FILMMAKERS who would bring Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave to the big screen needed an historical consultant, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was a natural choice. Gates had just edited the Penguin edition of Northup’s memoir—which, in the wake of the film’s success, has become a New York Times bestseller. Gates—who, among his many roles, is publisher of Transition, producer of PBS’s African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, and editor-in-chief of TheRoot.com—read the script and offered notes on the film’s unflinching depiction of the story of a free black man who was kidnapped into slavery in 1841 and forced to work on a Louisiana plantation.

Directed by Steve McQueen, with an adapted screenplay by John Ridley, the movie premiered in the United States in August 2013 at the Telluride Film Festival. Internationally, it has enjoyed both popular and critical success. It was nominated for nine Academy Awards, winning three, including Best Picture. It also won the BAFTA award for Best Film. In total, it has received dozens of accolades.

 



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