Who Would You Want to Start A Culture With?
by M. Nzadi Keita
Re-PLACE-ing Philadelphia is building an expanded archive of cultural memory that includes multiple histories, re-place-ing the established with new narratives and understandings. Meta-Notes expand on the project's conceptual frame and ground it in a larger context.
On July 20, 2015, Re-PLACE-ing Philadelphia hosted a public dialogue with Free Radical Marc Bamuthi Joseph. Poet M. Nzadi Keita reflects on his words and work, shared values, and transformative power.
“What sustains life in your community?” Cultural worker Marc Bamuthi Joseph asks us all. We are a wide-ranging group of Philly people. Creatives, seekers and believers. We are balancing small plates of hummus and fruit, pacing ourselves against serious Philly humidity and grabbing cool cups of water or wine. Appropriately, we sit in a building still under construction.
Questions urge answers, and that’s a good thing. Part of the give-and-take circle that community depends on. Shared values, shared space, shared imaginings—what we who have come, and what absent others outside this room, combing the air for energy, all know we need to fight the undertow and thrive together. Bay Area-based Joseph brings us this jolt of affirmation in the interest of healing. His question will spiral, I find myself hoping. His question will sprout beyond this moment. How lucky for us: he’s got some love for Philly.
I live in Germantown, where many answers to his question surface: The presence of trees—large ones, old ones, slender ones—offering beauty in caring gestures, with their silent voices. Voices such as the woman I heard one morning at the back door, pouring an aria over her balcony that drifted like early snow through the quiet. Quiet evenings without sirens—not always, but often—when crickets gather to sing like children. Children, tired and radiant, being picked up after school. Schools we keep fighting to rescue and restore to islands of energy, love, and respect. Respect, made plain when we figure out how to make eye contact and share space. Space for gardens where we realize even more than green: the power of growing beauty and learning from the plants what life requires. The power of planting food we can eat. Catching buses, speaking poems in Maplewood Mall, sweeping sidewalks, walking our kids to Coleman Library. Taking care of who we are together and where we live.
“Can I show you something?” Marc Bamuthi Joseph grins, leaps forward to fiddle with his computer. A joy consumes him despite the humid room. Pulsing out across the country from Oakland to other cities, we see the evidence of many “creative ecosystems” as he calls them: fired up, meeting up, staying in the neighborhoods, drawing out the generations, listening to the youngers, the elders, the kids, the bridge-builders. All the time doing steady battle for art entwined with hours and baby sisters. Art available for breakfast and potting soil, phone calls and fried eggs. Art that soothes. Art that robs sleep. Art that eases the wait for the tow truck. Art living through people who are taking care of each other.
A consuming joy tends to spread, and that’s a good thing. Mine was fanned by Ryan, a young man whose presentation in my Black Arts Movement course introduced me to Joseph’s work. Work building on a premise that words become flesh. Work carried out by the “affirmation of personal truth.” By September of 2012, Trayvon’s name had become prayer. Bouts of rage, too much believing without seeing, too much loss left me scraping for that affirmation. Joseph’s red, black, and GREEN: a blues came to Philly. As much a healing as a performance, that evening lifted my choked heart. Reminded me that “Life is Living.” That experience of “unearthing spoken truth” lifted my head to possibility. I stayed up that night, giving birth to an idea. It became a new course that I taught two years later.
“A small army intent on changing the world.” Marc Bamuthi Joseph offers us this vision, a goal we can share in and act to mobilize. Some of us self-recruited for that army long ago.
A vision invites supporters and that’s a good thing. We half-leap from our chairs. His words draw cheers from this room full of three or four generations. We are conscientious objectors to what Joseph calls “system-induced pathologies,” in the mirror or on the street. Proof that “breathing is believing,” an idea that Joseph credits to his fellow artist, Theaster Gates.
Waves of warriors have led us here, people I wish the not-quite-40 year-old Marc Bamuthi Joseph could have known: Mattie Humphrey, Falaka Fattah, Bill Meek, Father Paul Washington, Frank Moore, Annie Hyman and Roxanne Jones, many others. I grew up under the gaze of such people, shaped by what they brought forward: positive transformative power. That is a gift black folk have demonstrated for this country and the world beyond, decades ongoing.
That transformative gaze turns forward now, fueling Joseph’s proactive work at the Yerba Buena Center and in other cities. Insisting that we sustain each other as decent human beings. That gaze sees the rampant, screamingly obvious beauty in our communities. Even amidst economic plunder and social erosion. Imposers and imposters. Our beauty dares to sustain the expectation of courtesy: greetings at a bus stop or a smile on the sidewalk. Our beauty rejects fear and shame. Doing steady battle against those forces. Doing steady battle for dignity.
M. Nzadi Keita is a first-generation urban northerner and a Philadelphia based poet.