Askia Touré gives Poetry Reading and Opening
Emilie Diouf: Thank you, Chad. Good afternoon everyone.
Audience: Good afternoon.
Emilie Diouf: Come on. I need more energy than that. As if we're not here to celebrate 50 years of tenacity and brilliance. Good afternoon everyone! Yay.
It is really my honor and pleasure to introduce one of our eminent guests, Professor Askia Touré. Professor Touré is one of the founding members of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and '70s. As a poet, professor, editor and activist, Professor Touré helped define a new generation of black consciousness that sought to affirm through the arts, African heritage as a core and fundamental aspect of blackness.
Touré is the author of several collections of poetry and has been published in numerous anthologies. He studied visual arts at the Art Student League of New York working with illustrator Tom Feelings and artist Elombe Brath in 1963. He helped produce a brief privately published illustrated history of Samori Touré, who resisted French colonialism in Guinea in the 1800s and was the father of Sékou Touré, former president of Guinea who successfully led the country's struggle for independence from French in the 1950s. This publication marked the beginning of his life-long commitment to pan-African resistance.
During the early 1960s, Touré solidified his growing role as a leader of the emerging Black Arts Movement by working with several new black arts publication. From 1963 to 1965 he served on the editorial board of Black America, the literary arm of the black nationalist Revolutionary Action Movement, RAM. For the following two years he was on the staff of Liberator Magazine, and then he served as an associate editor on the staff of the Journal of Black Poetry, now named Kitabu Cha Jua, which emerged from the Black Dialogue. Touré was named editor-at-large at the time.
Through all these forums, he sought to redefine black identity and strengthen the movement against racial injustice and oppression. His first collection of poetry, which was published in 1970, JuJu: Magic Song of a Black National Link, links African American sociocultural political experience with JuJu, a Yoruba word that means throwing, which also refers to Yoruba percussion drumming. The poem imitates the cadence of JuJu to suggest that when all is stripped away—dress, customs, language, religion—the modern black experience can still be linked to an African past through music.
In 1967, Touré joined the staff of Nathan Hare at San Francisco State University, the first program in African American and African Studies and taught African history, and there he joined with Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka. He organized in 1984 the Nile Valley Conference in Atlanta and co-founded the Atlanta Chapter of the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations.
Touré authored multiple books and received the 1989 African Book Award for Literature for his collection “From the Pyramids to the Projects.” In 2002, he received the Stephen E. Henderson Poetry Award for “Dawnsong.” Other works include films and plays. In 1996, Touré was honored with the Gwendolyn Brooks Lifetime Achievement Award from the Gwendolyn Brooks Institute in Chicago, Illinois.
Baba, as his mentees affectionately call him, has lived up to the standard of the great Senegalese leader Ahmadou Bamba who taught us the following: This life is God's farm and no one sends anyone to his farm to sleep. Through his poetry, activism, research and teaching, Askia Touré has certainly not slept. He has farmed well his farm. It is our turn to harvest the benefits of his labor. Please join me in welcoming Professor Askia Touré to Brandeis.
Askia Touré: Thank you, Brandeis. It is an honor to be here and to witness Black or Africana studies continuing through the centuries. That wasn't always an understanding. In a distant, happened by magic. Whole generations of scholars, idealists, and freedom fighters gave their last full measure of devotion to resurrect before the planet earth the African pioneering soul. Embodied right now as we sit in spite of the land colonialists in the oldest buildings on the planet earth, the three great pyramids linked to Orion's belt and the Africoid Sphinx. And no matter how they lied to you, that is the heritage of African people in their lying, slandering and attempt to enslave the African minds, they went against the Greeks and the Romans.
Heredotus and all of the great Greek philosophers said, "Don't call us barbarians. We studied in Kemet from the African masters by the Nile." It goes on and on and on. One of the things that I talk with some of my comrades and I said that I will reveal this to you in this period of common trauma, but also resistance, and rising. Look at the US Congress, what happened to all those tired old men? What about their congress? Boy, they're gonna have some trouble with those ladies. Oh, boy!
I promised some comrades that I would read this to you. I come from the generation who are the children of the great antifascist fighters of World War II who destroyed Hitler and Benito Mussolini. And who had to fight. Some of whom, my uncles and fathers had to fight their way to show some snooty Americans that black soldiers were patriots and freedom fighters. My uncles of the [Tuskeegee Airmen], you may have heard of them.
I talked with some of my colleagues and I thought I would, in a short couple of lines, three or four lines relate to you some of our trauma as the generation of young scholars, activists, and lovers of the 1960s. My great friend and big brother was the great satirical writer, scholar, professor, freedom fighter, Ishmael Reed. Ish and I were youngsters in the mid 60s when we and many of our generation were traumatized by one of the violent attacks on the leadership of the United States in history. My former name was Rolland Snellings. Ishmael Reed was sort of my big brother, comrade ... I see an outstanding scholar has just come into the room, Dr. Jemadari Kamara from UMass, Boston, welcome. Great, great scholar and pan Africanist.
Young man Rolland: "Ish, Ish, Ishmael, can they do that? Can they actually shoot the president?" Ishmael: "Apparently, they can Rolland. Apparently so." I was a youngster at that time in my early 20s right out of the United States Air Force. I was a student at the Arts Students League of New York. Some of the senior artists told me I was out of my mind. Boy, you crazy. I was going to the Art Students League of New York during the day, and working in the factories in Brooklyn at night. He said, "Boy you're gonna burn yourself out." I was what, 22, you think you're made out of steel or something. So, I met Ishmael Reed and a lot of the outstanding writers, men and women of what became Umbra Magazine, which began to more or less give birth to the whole Black Arts Movement.
This segment I want to name childhoods in because a lot of times we check out the buffoonery now and we think that, well, we thought our old man Nixon, but you know they got rid of Nixon, yeah right? This thing keeps giving birth to buffoonery and madness. I was at that time doing art classes, taking packages around to the buildings on Park Avenue, a little extra money and stuff, a kid, you know. And one particular day I saw this very imposing limousine, and I said, "Boy, that's a beautiful limousine." And so, I saw someone in the limousine. And so I looked around and I sneaked up on looked into the limousine, Park Avenue, Manhattan sitting in the limousine was the young, handsome, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. I said, "That's the president." I was looking around. I didn't see any security, anything, he was just sitting up in there.
Then I went and I looked again. It was president Kennedy. President Kennedy not only was as an outstanding leader, he was like a movie star, whatever, and all the girls wanted to meet this great man and this and that. And his equally outstanding brother Robert, Bobby, and so forth. And we had all these young men who had come from World War II. President Kennedy was a PT pilot, PT 109, a hero, and so forth. We saw with the death, assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The beginning of the planned assassination of the great World War II heroes. We have to have a comprehensive understanding, political understanding of this madness. The beginning of the deaths of the American popular heroes. The World War II greatest generation, the Kennedy brothers, John and Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy.
The great World War II veteran, civil rights leader, Medgar Evers in Mississippi. The great activist of the north, freedom fighter, orator, Mr. Malcolm X. His rival, friendly rival at that time the legendary Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. An entire generation of brilliant leaders were murdered before our eyes. You talk about the passing and the upsurge of the 60s. Oh, we were mad as hell. Some maniacs had killed our leaders and heroes. What the hell? We were, youngsters, high school, and college and so forth. I saw these brilliant, contributing, young heroic men who had been heroes in World War II, the war against fascism shot down in the streets all over this country by fascists.
And hey, people don't want to say that. They want to put pretty words to it, but not only did they murder John and Bobby, they came back and murdered John Jr. and his wife and sister-in-law. I just tried to give you a hint of the passion and the anger and the hurt which we experienced as a generation because we saw on the television all kind of stuff. Folks go to sleep, folks go to sleep. These people were ... My uncles fought the World War, it was the war against fascism. I remember I was about four years old or something. My uncles in their Navy outfits. They be young men playing with me and so forth. The war against fascism, World War II. And we thought, "Oh man, we gonna turn the world. We're going make this thing right." Then we had to go through another trauma to see those great heroes. All of them were young men. Sometimes we forget these were young idealistic men who wanted to do something for the world, shot down like dogs.
And we were the generation of young people that saw to avenge their honor by carrying on to struggle to free the United States of America from its unfreedom. I say that because when you have assassins and buffoons running your government you're not truly a free people. I'm just saying as brothers on the block say, I'm just saying. They told us that colored folks that we didn't know anything about environmentalism or anything like that. And why didn't we just talk about civil rights and mind our own business. I put out this volume called “Mother Earth Responds: green poems and alternative visions,” and we had the peoples of the earth and the animals and so forth. We know a few things. We know a few things about that.
I'm going to read a few pieces from that and also talking about this social climate which we're dealing with today. “A Wind Chant: A Diva ‘profiles.’” She was wild and fresh, a breeze from forever, blown across frontiers of our lives. Her whispers were soft, spring breaths stroking leaves, guiding them towards fecund maturity. I was rock, unbending, hopelessly rigid; but she found secret depths, emerald valleys glowing in her mind. Wind and rock, yin and yang, her golden voice sang in dark infinities, was sunlight where green reigned supreme in mythic landscapes extolling summer. My beautiful one, a hurricane sweeping the tropics, filling us all with emotion, insurgent devotion to all that surges and surrenders, sings and embraces totalities; emerges clean and whole to perpetual rhythms. Alive in melanin realms where lost voices haunt recurring dreamscapes, and spirits resurrect full moons, forever Eden.
A few words in passing. Looking at me I'm profiling this stuff. I better put on some glasses like I've got...I'm 80 years old. What am I thinking. See that's how y'all inspire me. I started demagoging like I used to in the civil rights movement. I better put some glasses on. A few words in passing. The ancients were right. Our common delusions and prisoners all in our world becomes a modern gulag. But this is only a beginning. How we define what truly matters in life. We are indeed fortunate. We have elders, [Twa], Gaagudju, !Kung of our human race. Yogis, Suthis, llamas, Babas, Zen masters, Shamans, masters of the inner realms. Only we must initiate contact, seek them out, begin the soul's grand dialogue with self.
Perhaps the rainforest can aid us on our quest. Perhaps the mountains, deserts, lakes and the great oceans. Perhaps the ants, dragon flies, butterflies, perhaps our fellow mammals. We might seek counsel with dolphins, whales, the happy ones. Explain to brilliant raven, and sly crows, immaculate eagles, hawks, vultures, owls. Begin rigorous chats with wolves, bears, tigers, leopards, moose, rabbits and others. Beings on our great maternal planet the earth. Speaking deep words, mirroring great truths, realigning beings, practicing divine harmony within the realm of being. My friend, when was your last conversation with the rain?
The ancient queendom in Africa was called Kush Nubia, that was south of Kemet or Egypt. The rulers of this great queendom were called the Kentakes or the Candaces. When the Romans conquered Egypt, the Candaces just like [inaudible] went to war against them riding elephants. I bet you don't know that. I bet you don't know that. The Kentakes waged was to more or less liberate their children from the north, the pharaohs, the queens of Kemet against the Romans.
More than skin deep, the Candaces, for Venus and Serena and the sisters. Beauty is sensitive, poetic, symbolic, metaphorical, necessary to any culture. In the symbolic landscape of American media, a pale goddess appears, tossing ash-blond hair, she pleads, "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful," with apparent innocence. And millions of dark women are wiped out, scarred for life; for on American altars, blond is goddess, metaphor, symbol, archetype. Dark women so, "Unfair" in a World of Anglo-Germanic standards. Millions scarred for life, labeled pariahs, black in all its implications, in a world where pale blonds plead with apparent innocence, that we not "hate" them for being "beautiful."
In T.V.-dominated America, millions of Africans: tall, willowy ebony women, curvaceous, full-bodied brown or sepia women, African Venuses despised by a racist aesthetic. However, Venus and Serena Williams, Nubian queens of world tennis, are not blonds, are not celebrated as beauties by America; are Black in all its implications: voluptuous, full-bodied, broad-nosed, full-lipped, wooly haired, sexy Nubians, primordial and sublime. Candaces ruling the court, leaping like regal panthers; slamming, serving, demolishing demoralized "Barbies" flashy white beads clicking against cornrows, as blond rivals are crushed.
Venus and Serena are Black and uncompromising in all its implications; are not Tiya and Temira: they are reality, not sanitized TV images; and millions of little girls, black, in all its implications, not "beautiful" as visualized by America and its blondes and wannabes feel lovely, graceful, precious, empowered, inspired by the courtly deeds of these Nubian goddesses. And I, wiping suddenly welling eyes, I'm delighted as Black Isis rises from her glorious Egyptian shrine, smiles and winks a beautiful, cosmic eye at her lovely daughters unbound in a vicious, malicious land of corrupt Nazis, kicking ass!
I just felt that, that had to be said. It had to be said. People say, "You're going to get in trouble talking that stuff. You know that old black stuff, that's dead. Nobody wants to hear that." I want to read a [inaudible] poem to the last of the great jazz alchemic masters, the air to the master John Coltrane, the final master.
Master Pharaoh Sanders, Pharaoh Alchemy legend one, the master returns, Atlanta invocation. He calls upon apocalypse, earthquakes, tornadoes as companions to twilight passion. A voice radiant, sublime, magical, part night, part firestorm. Permits spirits to chant vivid dirges in Georgia forests of ubiquitous pines. Master Pharaoh Sanders cast his golden net, and captured a star. Thousands witnessed this miracle. It was a rainy Saturday. I was there, as amazed as the others I saw stars, ruby core pulsing in shadows of visionary alchemy, sonic apocalypse, aural paradise, metaphysical harmonics, maatic glissandos, architectural vibrato, exploding demonics. Releasing healing auras amid Djimbe juju, percussive rainbows, solar/lunar eclipses, scarlet spirits, holy ghosts dancing, prancing, soaring among alienated strangers, rabid racists, battered wives, tarnished rebels, crushed dreamers, lost romantics, junkies, con men, cynics, and others among the “Lonely Crowd.” Wandering America instantly healed, transformed, revitalized, in a dialectical exorcism, measured as love.
Thank you so much. As Professor Emily had to remind me. I tend to get rather long winded up here. But I get going. I just want to end by if you're not familiar, making you familiar with this wonderful edition anthology “SOS—Calling all Black People: A Black Arts Movement Reader” by Sonia Sanchez, Dr. John Bracey Sr. and Dr. James Smethurst. We just keep on doing those books. Why don't they just shut up. They just keep writing those books. Thank you so much. A beautiful and graceful audience. Thank you.