They are not bodies

There have been numerous op-ed pieces about “the Black body”–the vulnerable, often violated “Black body”.  And while I understand this phrase and its meaning I often find myself angry with it.  It is reductive.  It removes the personalities, the narratives of the specific human beings who were vulnerable and violated.  Black lives matter.  Black lives have narratives that explode the ideal of justice and equality and respect that should be the foundation of a great Republic.  Black lives matter because if there was justice, equality and respect no one would write about “the Black body.”

The men and women who have been killed by members of law enforcement and/or their allies over the past few years have names and narratives that go beyond the sensational ways in their lives were interrupted have names, had lives that mattered to someone who loved them, cared about them, worried over them and now mourn them. #blacklivesmatter.

Sandra Bland should still be breathing and so should so many other people with names.  Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and many others. They are not “bodies” to me.  They are young and old, poor and middle class, well educated and street wise, family people, single and looking,  going to college or dropped out.  They had smiles and told stories and maybe knew how to dance or write or served as emergency babysitters. They are not bodies. They have parents, siblings, cousins, uncles and aunts, a favorite teacher or teachers they hated.  Someone saved their baby teeth.  Someone has their pictures in a Bible.  Their mothers wear White and seek solace and justice. Their mothers speak to the media, but speak to them in private. They are not bodies. They should be breathing. They should be smiling and planning a party or angry and cursing or studying geometry or checking out new games or walking around.  They have names. They have families. They have stories. They are not bodies.


new poems this summer

This summer I have poems in very different places:  Upstreet, a print journal frm Massachusetts.  Cutthroat, a journal from Colorad0–this one is a tribute issue to Joy Harjo and Linda Hogan.  And two poems



Whispers and prayers in The Brooklyn Rail was created in response to the horrific killings

in Charleston, SC.  Blossoms in the gyre in Cutthroat is a way of connecting nature, spirit and the struggle for justice.  Poets are working.  Poets are working hard.


Half -moon blues

Last night I sat on my neighbor’s stoop. She is a retired nurse. The sky was clear. The moon half-full and both of us were both furll of anguish and rage. She said “I can’t watch the news, this story” and then we discussed what most likely happened to Sandra Bland. My neighbor could have been Ms. Bland. So could I. The video of the State Trooper’s “arrest” of Ms. Bland is horrifying. “There was no reason, no reason” my neighbor muttered. “And he kept saying put down your cell phone”. That video shows male rage at its most naked. Had that trooper written the ticket and walked away, Ms. Bland would be either paying a fine or disputing the ticket. She’s dead. We sat there and just marveled at our own “luck.”

photo by Patricia Spears Jones

Macon Street roses, Bed-Stuy

Summer is here, a garden, a massacre

Japanese Garden

Brooklyn Botanic Garden

0617151505Last Wednesday on a day that represented my break from teaching, I walked about the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.  The day had begun soft, gray, moist, but once I got to the garden around 2 p.m. the sun began to break out a huge bright smile over this very walkable feast of a place.  The Garden is undergoing rapid change–new plantings, old trees that fell during Superstorm Sandy.  The variety of roses were in various stages of blooming and closing–the old roses slowly being brought back after a horrific blight.  Yellows, pinks, reds, whites, lilac, even silver colors and climbing flowers make the garden one of the mirthful places in this world.  I remember walking with my sister many years ago in the garden and we found varieties from 1919, the year our Mother was born.  And ones named for movie stars and Presidents.  But it is the Japanese Hill and Garden that I was really happy to see after too long an absence.  White and purple irises were in bloom, and there have been recent prunings of the trees–in many ways the Garden is an arboretum.  And the paths towards the Shinto Shrine, one of the oldest examples in the U.S. had been cleared and recent plantings made it seem particularly lush.  All that green and the glorious orange red portal in the pond.  I have prayed there.  said good bye to a lover there.  Called the names of those lost to terror or storm or old age.  I had no idea that later on, so much terror would be unleashed but in Charleston, SC and nine Black American church people including Rev. Clementa Pinckney would be assassinated.  Who could think of such horror while walking through the beauty of a garden, which is a very human made sculpture?

We can make gardens, but we have difficult time in these United States of looking at our history; at the brutal, vicious and violent treatment of African Americans and finding ways to end racism and brutality towards Black People.  The assassin who sat for an hour in Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church did not expect welcome.  Had no idea that Black people are polite and sharing.  Seemed almost undone by courtesy.  But not enough.  The Devil’s work had to be done.  Not a phrase used, but giving the religious overtones of this political assassination, Rev. Pinckney was a sitting state senator, it seems appropriate.  The assassin is not mentally ill.  He is filled with hatred and he had a gun (gift?) and he wanted that most American of celebrity–infamy.  His name will not be mentioned here.

But if he wanted to trigger a war between the races, he failed.  The race war is between Whites.  This is where Whites of decency, generosity, civility are going to have to decide how much longer they can benefit from White Supremacy, an ideology that does not bother saying its name and ignore those Whites who are brutal, mean spirited, violent and racist who kill, maim in their name.  Because believe me, Black people are done with this.  We are not interested in being moving targets for angry White people.  We know that White Supremacy exists and are done with explaining to the people who created this ideology what they are doing.  We are most willing to defend ourselves, but as Richard Wright noted many many years ago, they got more guns.

So I am hopeful that with the demand to remove the hateful Confederate battle flag from South Carolina capitol grounds; with the commentary in social media from Blacks and Whites and Asians and Native Americans and others on hate crimes, racism that others also have come to that enough is enough moment.  Because with the murders of decent, hard working, charismatic, generous African American citizens who were studying their Bible, a shift in the zeitgest is underway.  America has and may never be “post-racial.”  Barack Obama is President because he was the best candidate for the job and thinking people know that. But his election is but one of the many things that show how the zeitgeist is unfolding.  We are at the start of a serious discussion about ending racism in this country.  This is not a conversation on race–that is stupid.  Racism represents the worst of America’s character and character can be altered, changed.  Racism has got to go.

Rock Rose-BBG. In memory of the Nine.

Rock Rose-BBG. In memory of the Nine.

on recent curation–WORDS SUNDAY

One of the best things about being a poet is that I am also a reader and a listener.  And like many other readers and listeners, when given the opportunity, I enjoy organizing readings.  Atim Oton, an entrepreneur and in her own way community activist decided to open a “Pop Up” of her store, Calabar Imports, in Bed-Stuy near my home.  So I took the opportunity to create WORDS SUNDAY.  A Fall Schedule ended with a great reading by Gregory Pardlo from his brilliant second collection, Digest which recently won the Pulitzer Prize and Alexis De Veaux who’s amazing career includes poetry, fiction collections, and an important biography of Audre Lorde.  The Spring events started with younger, emerging poets Terence Degnan and Soraya Shalforoosh.  Soraya, while volunteering with Four Ways Books asked me to read for their series a week before 9-11.  Poets are elephants, we remember especially the kindnesses of our colleagues.  And the final event in June included Janice Lowe, who I asked to start the entire series; Tai Allen and Ekere Tallie–they were lively and we had a great conversation about the continuing influence of the Black Arts Movement.   I am proud of my work as a curator and hope to do more of this part of my work.  Some pictures from WORDS SUNDAY, Calabar Imports Bed-Stuy Pop-up Brooklyn New York.

Words Sunday

Chat with Gregory Pardlo and Alexis De Veaux November 2014


Renato Rosaldo and Patricia Spears Jones chatting

Words Sunday, March 2015

Words Sunday, March 2015


June 7 event-first one w/ three readers. Janice Lowe was joined by Meredith Wright and Yahann, musicians and singers

The day after May Day thank you Jacob Lawrence with event link!

03311520130501152026a03301519020330151954a If I could say that someone waved a magic wand around me, I would say it is because of Jacob Lawrence, an important artist whose work continues to refresh the imagination to this day.  I first saw half of the Migrations Series in the 1970s at the Philllips Collection in D.C.  I think because of Richard J. (Rick) Powell, who was then a artist/scholar/curator kind of guy.  I was stunned.  These little paintings told stories about the South and the very real reasons that Black people left-had to leave.  The next time I saw the panels was at the Whitney I think along with other series, The Builders, etc.  Again, the stories in colors vivid and bold lines–the generosity towards Black folks, the pride of Black folks, the folk of Black folks–his painting allowed the narrative to sing through.

So when Elizabeth Alexander  (she’s the very tall imposing diva next to moi) asked me to create a poem in response to the Series, I was both excited and terrified.  How to do justice to this work?  How not imitate in words what he had already done in paint?  How to add to the discourse on the Black Migration?  How.  Last August when I was the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, I re-looked at each of the panels and realized that Panel 57 was what I returned to.  She’s the only single female figure in the entire series.  She’s wearing white.  There’s a cross in the picture.  I thought of my cousin Hassie, who was head Usher at the Baptist church she attended.  I thought of the aunts who came down from Chicago and Detroit looking fly.  I thought of the harsh beauty of the south and the hard heartedness of southern white leadership.  And then I realize that the best way into the poem was through scent.  If you get the catalog you can read “Lave”.  If you attend the exhibition, up till September 7, you can hear me and the other poems read our work in one of exhibition room.   You can hear great music in other rooms (I am in a picture with the great opera singer, Kevin Maynard)  On May 1, May Day, International Worker’s Day, we read at the Museum of Modern Art.

Hopefully, this link will take to what was one of my proudest moments as a poet and a Black woman who has lived long enough to know the harsh beauty remains in the South as does menace towards Black people, poor people–but I also know that the struggles have moved North, have taken a more complicated hard heartedness.  But like our ancestors, we keep moving and when needed like the laundress, we find work, we do the work, we stand on whatever ground we can.

Again, I thank Elizabeth Alexander.  Leah Dickerman, Sarah Kennedy, Jennifer Harris and a great crew at MOMA; the film studio guys, the really nice guards, the wait staff for any and all dinners, the whole sense of conviviality.  Because ultimately, Lawrence shows how Black people embrace life in all of its complications from loving to loss; from brutality to struggles for justice.  We really do keep on keeping on.  And if you cannot embrace that simple thought you are starved of humanity.  Praises to the Ancestors.  Praises to the poets.

The reading was live streamed on youtube, here is the link.


la vida es la sueno, sometimes

0331152013  Jacob Lawrence at age 23 showed a series of small paintings narrating the GREAT MIGRATION–the movement of thousands of Black people from the South of these United States to hopefully better lives in the North.  This is the largest voluntary internal migration-all others were forced.  I kept that in mind as I developed the poem, “Lave” which is part of the Poetry Suite commissioned by Elizabeth Alexander for the Museum of Modern Arts exhibition of the entire series for the first time in 20 years.  One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence Migrations Series and Other Visions of  The Great Movement North is now up at MOMA and it is worth seeing because it shows how active, innovative and politically engaged African American artists were during the Great Depression into War Years and beyond.  We are still working through the power of their imagery, those ideas, and of course their challenges.   This panel is the one I focused on when writing my poem, though others are in the poem as well.  Every poet in the suite came to Lawrence’ work from their own perspective, just as  artists came to their response to the growing urbanization of Blacks differently from Lawrence.   My life is like a dream, sometimes at least when it comes to poetry.

On May 1, a Debut Reading of the Poetry Suite  moderated by Elizabeth Alexander will include me and Rita Dove, Nikky Finney, Terrance Hayes, Tyehimba Jess, Yusef Komunyakaa,  Natasha Trethewey, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Crystal Williams, and Kevin Young.

At the preview exhibition, I had a chance to commune with my Panel, but I am sure when I go again, the gallery will be packed.  Here’s the link:

May your life be a dream sometimes, too.



Spring finally- Palm Sunday notes

Today is Palm Sunday.  I go to St. John’s Episcopal church in Park Slope.  I went to Episcopal mission school in Arkansas and I find the ritual and the thoughtfulness helpful to calm the many many noises that go on in my creative brain. I was raised in the Pentecostal Church, which is as ritualized as the Anglican churches, but with movement, great music and serious “testifying”.  The noises in my my creative brain often felt amplified.  But I miss the music.  My mother before I was born was the Preacher’s singer–the woman (always a woman) who sang the most emotional hymn before the Preacher preached.  She was in a harrowing car accident and she stopped singing. But she remain a devoted, dedicated Christian and in a few years joined a Christian Methodist Church, where over the years she became one of the matriarchs.  I’ve been in NYC for along while and years ago when I told people I believed in God they seemed surprised.  Often these were people who are now Buddhists, but mostly they had either been Roman Catholic or Jewish or had been raised with no spiritual tradition.  None of the people who believed in African religions never said anything like that.  Belief is a personal choice.  It is something that you come to for many different reasons, but at it’s essence, it is also deeply emotional and filled with the necessary words of testimony–how the Lord got me over.

One of the reasons, I love Carolyn Rodgers “how I got ovah” was that she was able to connect her deep faith to our desires as Black people for freedom, safety, love.  Today is Nina Simone’s birthday and my poem  “The Perfect Lipstick” was one of the first to receive wide readership because it has Ms. Simone as a figure of great importance.  When she sings spirituals, civil rights songs she reminds me of the sisters testifying:  “I give my honor to God . . . ”  She gave her honor to the people, Black people.  I often wish I could attain that level of confession and purgation.  But I think of The Passion of Christ and I think of the Passion of Black People in the United States and I think of redemption and transformation.  For me it is the transformation of that suffering into something powerful-the Holy Spirit’s bright message that I find of deepest interest.  I don’t know whether I want to go to “heaven” unless my mother and the many good people I have met in my life are there, but the idea of transformation of moving away from the bad habits, anger, mistrust to a place of freedom, beauty, community–I can feel that sometimes in church and yes in art.

Spring is here finally, the crocuses are sprouting, forsythia is on its way and when the white blossoms of the living bradford pears come, I may cry.  I will assuredly smile and so will many many others.  We have had a winter too frigid, too snowy, too gloomy and we need every blossom the Creator brings. 0329151354



time to start to look back

last year of my 50s! at Cafe Loup, photo by Karen Bell

last year of my 50s! at Cafe Loup, photo by Karen Bell

Since 2008 I have been writing about being  a Black Bohemian in the East Village in the 1970s.  I am trying to discover who I was as a way to understand how I’ve been able to be a poet and artist and person in this world.  It has been daunting, but slowly the memoir is coming together.

Thanks to Malaika Adero for presenting my brief look at 1976 the photo by Amos Rice that shows Stanley Crouch, Alice Norris, David Murray, Carlos Figueroa, me, Phillip Wilson Victor Rosa and Charles “Bobo” Shaw.

I hope to publish more pieces over the next several months