Then: stressed at work, slip
or fall to get paid leave. Now:
some shoot black men dead.
Then: stressed at work, slip
or fall to get paid leave. Now:
some shoot black men dead.
It is fitting that the 151st #Juneteenth falls on #FathersDay. What greater, braver, and more honorable sacrifice is there than being an enslaved parent, a father who toils and fights for the freedom of his children? This is the grave of my GGG Grandfather Corporal Jerry Holt, owned by his father and master Berryman Holt, enlisted in the Union Army at Lebanon, KY and was mustered into Company E, U.S. Colored Troops 125th Infantry Regiment on Apr 8, 1865. His name is engraved on the African American Civil War Memorial, plaque number D-130. When he returned home his father and former master gave him the land he toiled. Thank you father of my fathers. #HappyFathersDay #Juneteenth #RussellKentucky
I am quite blessed and honored to serve as an AP Reader for College Board’s AP English Literature Exam now five summers in a row, and to celebrate our last reading in Louisville, Kentucky, I read two pieces from Love You Madly: Poetry about Jazz, edited by Lisa Alvarado. Here are two of the three pieces I wrote for Love You Madly Poetry, inspired by the legendary Hugh Masekela, who gave me a most perfect gift, my name.
Mahlalela (Lazy Bones)
There is no laziness in those bones.
Music is the symbiotic marriage of math and science
to passion and sound, birthing life, melody and drum
but no work of art is that simple.
Exile a man because he protests with a flugelhorn and prod him out at gun’s barrel,
amidst an ebullition of homestead and singeing flesh, and thwart him westward,
much like the fathers before him. He does not respond in kind,
but riffs on his clarion, “Mahlalela,” lazy bones, as Letta rubs their noses in it.
Rob a country of her griots and the callers will muster like Malcolm and MacDuff,
amassing millions, nations even, firing lyric and melody, chanting “Amandla!,”
while Makeba, Masekela, Mbulu and Semenya, turn the studio into the war room
and dismantle the Boer bear from distant waters rallying, “Idlozi livukile! Masibuyel’ emakhaya!”
No lazy bones in this anthem and victory march song.
Its cadence proud and contagious, its timbre too bright and confident,
fully assured of the perfect, long suffering truth that neither life nor land
has been lost in vain,
and that freedom yet comes.
© Asani Charles
 The spirits of our ancestors have awakened! Let’s return home!
One night on San Carlos
Listen now to the misshapen tall tale about how my five lettered name came to be. A Zulu horn player and his chanteuse troubadoured through the streets of San Fran and came upon our house to jam and graze through the grass.
Mama was fat with me and my rambunctiousness and no gift in hand, the African horn man looked in his bag for a name. He played her several melodies and staccatos, some somber and deep, others smooth and easy, like a drive down Pacific Coast Highway.
They must have rapped and jammed jazz and politics all night. You know how musician folk are, let alone two trumpeters, playing ego and sex in every lick like silk running over chords and dandelions while Mama and Mbulu side eyed and sucked teeth.
Soon the last song faded and fatigue lulled them to slumber, leaving the man from Johannesburg with one last offering. It was the best he had, full of Akibulan pride and history. It was green and natural, something about a flower he probably plucked calling on a memory of a spring afternoon.
Mama breathed it in, smiled graciously, and changed it to suit her best.
And so it is that Asani is rebellious in Swahili.
Once upon a time in my girlhood, I changed my name to Paisley and wholeheartedly believed my Prince Charming would find me bearing roses and my raspberry beret. We’d marry and make melodies in a purple mansion and grow wise and beautiful as Mr. and Mrs. Nelson. That was a long time ago but still the tears run deep without ceasing. I will not say good night but instead, sleep well with your beloved.
Prince Rogers Nelson June 7, 1958- April 21, 2016
Watery waves above seared asphalt,
I wonder how long we’re to bare this
inferno, this burden. How did we get here?
Summers of long ago were built for mindless
laughter, and the splashing of dirty tiny feet.
We ventured out at 8 am and surveyed the wild
hills behind us, be they made of concrete or granite.
Under the paramount of 80 degree palm trees
We dined on the likes of Pop Rocks, Coke, pickles and
America’s Best, Project Kool-Aid. Why did we leave?
Roads warped and lawns parched, we huddle now
in vacant spaces, too hot to touch, leemealone. The
tile is cool and the AC struggles to hum, but for how long?
One August I fell in love with Leonard. That was me,
hair feathered and free, body stuffed in a flat tank top
and daisy dukes. I only watered the grass every day at
2 o’clock; the time he came home from hoopin’ at the park.
He was enamored with my 12 year-old frame I’m certain.
Four grandmas fell in thirty days due to century heat
beating their ages. Budget cuts closed one city pool but
dilapidated, who’d walk barefoot to its watering hole anyway?
June ’91 sparked the summer of free beginnings.
Boyz N the Hood made Crenshaw a tourist spot and
we were okay with it; we were 20, dreams aplenty, and
days of the week spawned one long water filled weekend.
Newly on the verge of making count, we believed we
were invincible. In a year we’d elect a sax-playing President.
104° in Dallas and kids remain house hostages ransacking our nerves.
Senators ransom both college funds and Grandmas’ prescriptions.
My how we’ve changed over this 21st Century Summer.
©Asani Charles 8/1/2011
March to November moves clockwise to the
prairie songs of eight cowboy-hatted men.
Dancers circle about in a kaleidoscope of hues,
bells and sparkly rhinestones. Among this
concert of colors, one girl, wearing her grandma’s
simple jingle dress, closes her eyes on honor beats,
dancing church as the tin cones make medicine.
She thinks no one sees her.
Every Saturday he dons his father’s roach and single bustle,
moving counter clockwise because that is tradition.
He dances for grandpa who cannot. He never takes a
number because the drum is not a lottery.
His vest doesn’t glisten so he rarely catches the judges’ eye.
Still a handful of young hopefuls watch his
every step, coup and stop.
He thinks no one sees him.
When the round dance sings it way between
contest and cake walk, they make their way,
slide stepping with the head lady, slide stepping
with the head man. Then like kismet, at the eclipse
of the men and women’s lines, she notices his old-style
bead work with the fat, chubby beads in muted colors.
He marvels at her lone braid and scarlet scarf
en lieu of a fan. He wonders what her family name is.
© Asani Charles 4/2/13
In a silence only comfortable in secret places
we listen to the oddest things and often confront
surface masquerading truths. It happens seconds
before slumber, where conscious and subconscious
share glances fading in and out of a bar;
one tipsy, the other drunk.
An irregular thump-thumping sounds the alarm
and like an annoying buzzer, we are forced to
give biology an overdue audience. Still that’s
not the surreal of it. No, it’s the
rushing, sloshing, or worse, lollygagging
just about dilatory flow of life through our veins.
Hearing that stops us like a screen gone black,
questioning all of the day’s decisions as we
squeeze shut our eyes, fearing they’ll see the light.
We call on our makers, supplicating forgiveness
and new starts, but in case we fail- imagining
how they’ll drape us and who will cry and
who will mean it. We wonder if anything will ever get
done in our absence, “will that chapbook ever
see a bookstore shelf?” And then in a foggy moment,
the serum of sleep seeps into the crevices and
reality warps as a rabbit walks into the bar from the first stanza.
We dream until the buzzer sounds then spring bolt
from the midnight confessional into a hot shower (that doesn’t help),
subsequently chasing caffeinated potions and hyper carbs,
completely oblivious to the near-death oath sworn the night before.
This is middle age.
© Asani Charles 12/26/2014
Last month Tracy and Sybrina joined the congress of survivors
and it’s not that boys are worth more than girls,
no not at all. Without life givers we cease to exist.
It’s more that testosterone drives us, seeks out
all we wish to discover, adventure, and conquer.
When mothers yield boys fathers rejoice in
the preservation of their names, their likeness,
their vigor and fame but mothers take a beat back,
pondering, “How will we raise him? Protect without
enveloping him, shelter without sheltering him?”
So mothers sleep a little lighter, pray a little longer,
toiling until tired just to ensure that this root survives
strangling weeds and sometimes fetid soil pushing through
to wrangle himself into a strong veiny oak or maybe celestial redwood.
Then imagine her squalls when someone cuts the young plant down.
Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t always happen amidst a crowd,
with bare knees bloodied on war torn street corners, stained in beer and piss,
quarantined off with yellow hazard tape. No-
Sometimes it comes six months later, hovering over the shopping cart,
as she reaches for his favorite box of sugar high cereal.
The wail comes from the uterus and draws its volume from the diaphragm.
Her back contorts, arching up and concave to support the siren’s power and
alleviate the heart’s waning blood supply and the lungs’ lack of oxygen. The lyrics
are foreign to human ears, communicating solely with sinew, cells, gods and angels.
What comforts a wound so fresh, bleeding out as the spindly plant withers in her arms?
No such elixir exists because no potion soothes a stolen womb. Offer prayers and carry her burdens while she marks endless mornings without hearing “mommy.” Make no sense of the senseless, only memories of love and kindness mending what’s left of her heart.
Copyright Asani Charles 3/24/2012