Black (and Outdoors) At A Time Like This

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Cleveland, 3400

Grass/lawn/tree/rosebushes/honeysuckle fence

tree lawn, front lawn, home, backyard – in that order

One summer garden = zucchini abundance, asparagus dearth, too many tomatoes

I grew up seeing green from my window not realizing

how and when this would become a lifetime requirement.

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Me or my look-alike ca. 1967

 

 

List

trails, hills, woods, stony beaches

mountains, meadows, lakes, streams

Give me all of these

they belong to who I am.

 

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Vermont, Summer 1983

 

#BlackAndOutdoors

feels like that’s always been me

but I’m not a hiker/ mountain biker/backpacker

I’m an attendee, if you will.

One who shows up in nature

and attends.

I listen and look and pause

and wonder

how I got here

or here

or here.

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Once upon a time at my godparents’ with my oldest, ca. 1997

AT A TIME LIKE THIS

There are not enough of the right words

to explain

why it matters and what it means to be Black and claim the outdoors, the great outdoors as one’s own, as part of one’s being, as central to one’s every breath and thought. Hanif Abdurraqib has 13 poems with the same title “How Can Black People Write Poems About Flowers At A Time Like This” and each one is so exquisitely distinct. Black people and flowers match up for funerals in the popular imagination maybe, or for Easter hats and brilliant attire. At A Time Like This which has become every time all the time, when, oh when, would Black folks ever have time for flowers? At A Time Like This when might we take pause to contemplate a flower’s beauty and complexity, meditate on flowers’ metaphorical bounty. Apparently that is not for us. There are not enough of the right words to explain. You wonder at this. Or you don’t. Maybe you’ve never seen Black folks striding out into the woods, along the river bank, up the mountain trail; sitting cross-legged around the campfire, as natural. Because our bodies in open, green and spectacularly floral spaces can so readily be misconstrued unless they are laboring on what you presume must be

someone else’s land.

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What it meant, what it means: outdoors(y)

What Outdoorsy Means & For Whom

Not everyone who spends time outdoors can be

outdoorsy.

Outdoorsy qualifies and codifies belonging:

read privilege

read price tag

read middle class and up

read whiteness

read suburbia.

No one calls the homeless outdoorsy

or migrant farm workers outdoorsy.

Outdoorsy is a fashion line,

Outdoorsy completes a dating profile;

Hot or not, it means what it means.

I love the outdoors and I am not outdoorsy.

 

Places I Have Seen With My Own Eyes That Have Also Seen Me (A Visual Poem)

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Late Invitation

A life that holds promise

carefully

like a delicate bouquet

requests the pleasure of your company

in a vision of nature

happening wherever you are/ I am/we be.

Claim it children,

chase it children,

be gentle children,

Let it be.

Let us be

us.

 

 

This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Challenge, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Parisa Mehran and Alison Collins have entries today as well. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Janelle W. Henderson (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog circle).

All images belong to the author, Sherri Spelic, @edifiedlistener

 

 

 

 

 

Parallel Playlists: Music That Shaped Me

I.

Senior year of high school. English elective: Logic, Persuasion and Belief. I wrote an essay entitled, “My Rival Is Moving Out Into A Traffic Jam” which my teacher, Mr. Nelson, absolutely loved. I was stunned by the mark he gave me and caught off guard when he lauded my work in front of the whole class. I still have that essay in my archives – 8 yellowing notebook pages of handwritten text. It’s 36(!) years old and I have always known its whereabouts. It has traveled with me from Cleveland to Providence, to Vienna, to DC, then back to Vienna. That means something.

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I carry this artifact along with a few other pieces of writing I am especially proud of in an old blue folder. When I tell people that I was a “good student” in high school, what I really mean is that I was a strong writer. It pleased me to be able to wrangle words to get them to say what I wanted. It also pleased me to be have my skill recognized and praised. (Even if by the wrong name: Jeri!) I was an achiever, so the grammar of school made sense to me.

II.

I graduated from an independent day school just outside of Cleveland, Ohio. In our class of 104, there were 6 Black students, 4 boys and two girls. The upper school, previously all male, had been co-ed for about a decade before I arrived. It was a very preppy place and  even listed in The Official Preppy Handbook (1980), to the chagrin (and perhaps secret pride) of the administration. When I showed up in 10th grade I was clueless about all that, just noticed a lot of kids walking around in collared shirts and corduroy pants (no jeans allowed).

While I was there I made myself at home: found my place on the track team and in the tech theater crew.  In that overwhelmingly white environment I became a keen observer of social patterns because although I had plenty of friends, they were scattered across several different cliques. As a result I had a outsider’s perspective with the benefit of insider informants. As ‘the Black girl’ I wasn’t competing for the same boys as the white girls (or so it was assumed), and among the white (and most of the Black) boys I wasn’t even in the running but I was likable and funny and easy to get along with so I enjoyed a sort of non-threatening popularity that probably in the long run saved me a lot of adolescent grief and drama.

In my all Black neighborhood, I was occasionally referred to as an Oreo – Black on the outside, white on the inside, but that designation never bothered me quite as much as it should have. In my own estimation, it felt like I had learned to make the contrasts work for me. At school and at home my academic inclinations were supported and applauded. If some kids accused me of ‘talking like a white girl’ I could only tell them that my parents talked like that, too. Of necessity I was building up a repertoire of both/and behaviors and attitudes. If I didn’t feel beautiful in the white mainstream sense of the word, I at least felt comfortable in my own skin. I looked like my dad and socialized like my mom. I soaked up the rigor of classical ballet and prized the spontaneity of school sports.  I internalized my city neighborhood’s nuances while I learned to move through east side suburbia like a resident. I sang along with the Gap Band and Billy Joel. All these aspects were a part of me. I was and wanted to be many things at once.

III.

Which brings me to the parallel playlists. When I thought about writing this post for the #31DaysIBPOC Challenge, I was flooded with possible ideas. In reading some of the initial posts, I was struck in particular by those stories which reflected on the past; on upbringing and negotiating various social contexts. So I decided to look back, too. And what I found was music. Song and dance offered me an emotional home base; countless spaces for me to rejoice and rage, recover and revive. My youngest son jokes that I have a song for every occasion. He’s not wrong.

Mr. Nelson’s favorite essay involved an analysis of song lyrics of Steely Dan’s My Rival, Billy Joel’s Moving Out and James Taylor’s Traffic Jam as illustrations of social alienation in modern America – all late ’70’s songs that were on heavy rotation on my rinky-dink turntable. Steely Dan is still my favorite band of all time. I feel like I owe half my life to Billy Joel for his song Vienna in which I felt seen and understood at 13. (“Slow down you crazy child/ you’re so ambitious for a juvenile / But then if you’re so smart/ Tell me why are you still so afraid…”)  And on the same album as Traffic Jam, James Taylor’s Terra Nova rings in my ears anytime I think about the tension between heading home and staying away. These were my songs by artists who helped me know myself as I muddled through adolescence.

At the same time, I knew well the pleasure and pain of singing Heatwave’s Always and Forever, minus the expectation of having that kind of match up with any boy. The same was true for Gap Band’s Yearning For Your Love and Outstanding. I sang those songs as if my life depended on it – especially in the car driving between the burbs and home. I dreamed of that one special slow dance with a boy who actually knew how to hand dance and would show me the ropes gently and lovingly. Listening to Cleveland’s AM R&B radio station, WJMO, I would go mad dancing to Parliament’s Flashlight, while the Commodore’s Jesus Is Love made me wish I was more religious than I actually was.

Parallel playlists have been my life’s soundtrack. Soulful rhythms followed by pop rock anthems sweeping into sad boy ballads coming around to mellow funk and old school slow jams. All of those tunes belong to me, to the person I’ve become, underscoring my collection of missed wishes and dreams come true. I know the words to all these songs. In singing them, I sing myself in a thousand and one ways.

Listen to the pop playlist here. Soul playlist over here. Putting these together gave me a great deal of joy. May you find a few tunes to soften and sweeten your day!

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    • This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Challenge, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Joel Garza (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog circle).