Monday, September 14, 2009

Me with Val

J* I don’t have a place to begin.

V* As it turns out, I don’t have a place to begin either.

J* Good.

V* I don’t think I would have been willing to have the conversation if I hadn’t spent the time I spent with Janice this summer.

J* What happened?

V* Don and I had been divorced for a year. I didn’t know how to continue those relationships (with family). I didn’t know whether to do that. People have said different things. People have said, “You just don’t know how to move on.” I’ve been a part of a family for twenty-nine years. So how do you step out of that? And I am mother to Darius and Deon, who are probably just as disconnected to the Davis family as I am. And they are dna Davises. I have some vested interest in them being connected to their family.

So back to why. Let me back up. John had been trying to get me to go to the family reunion in Chicago. I didn’t know how people would receive me. Janice and I had some really good conversations and I read her the poem that I had written to you. And she said that I should send it to you. I wouldn’t have, but then your fortieth birthday came up .

(Val’s poem to me)

How do you explain
to your niece(?)
that you have admired her
since she was a girl
wide-eyed, knowing, questioning

how do you claim
any space in a life
of the little-girl-cum-woman
when you never bought her ice cream
from the "mulberry bush" playing truck
never played hide-and-seek
never bought a book you knew she would like

how do you explain
that you have prayed for her often
and loved her in algebraic distance
longed to be an x factor
in one of her poems

that her bold bravery
has always made you smile
that you love the richness
of her voice/of her poverty
knowing she would rather scavenge
for change in the sofa
than settle for 9-to-5
mind-numbing mundanity
that yardwork feels your soul, too
that the next show she does
just might be the one
that lands her hunting
for dollars,
find the dreams she dreams
just around the corner
(c) Valerie Bridgeman 7-11-09/rvd 9-3-09

I love you.

V* Do you know who Sharon Bridgforth is?

J* No.

V* She’s a play writer. I got to perform with her in Austin. After the show we went to lunch at Mother’s, which is one of my favorite vegetarian restaurants in Austin. We were sitting there and eating and talking about art. My art, her art. She told me that the only thing holding me back from being great is my lack of commitment to the art.

I admire your commitment to the art. I use it as a place of deep thinking, meditation to the art or fear of the art. I have pieces that are in print, none of which I have submitted unless someone asks me to submit. If I don’t get asked to perform, I don’t perform. But this year has made me think a lot about not just what I do, but who I am. So I have been writing again. Then John sent me your blog. John has been the only person in the Davis family who has been trying to stay connected.

J* What are you writing now?

V* A lot of different pieces. Some memoir pieces. I’m trying to figure out how to do my art. Trying to figure out how to do my one woman show. Working on getting a space and a time.

My postponement of the art has been around the expectations (others). Being in the academic community… This year I decided I would do what’s life giving for me. I will get the academic writing done. But my soul’s work is the art.

(I stopped typing and taking notes here to really be in the conversation with Val. This is a conversation I wish I would have recorded. This conversation with Val for me was a lot like my conversation with Bettye. Here is another aunt I’ve known almost all of my life yet I felt like it was my first time talking with her. Her. As human being. My first time recognizing her as friend, artist, mother, aunt.)

J* It’s great that I’m talking to you for this blog because, I don’t know if you’ve read this in other of my entries but one of the reasons I started this blog was for my younger cousins and family members that I may not meet, or get to know well anyway. Specifically Deon’s daughter. I keep forgetting her name. I keep calling her “Deon’s daughter.”

V* Imani.

J* Imani.

(And how could I forget a name like Imani? It’s one of my favorite girl names.)

J* I imagine that she and I could be so much alike and that she could discover some kind of connection with me, even if it’s just through reading things about me here. I used to make up things about Mary. Mary was my grandmother’s first child who lived only three days.

V* Yeah.

J* I used to imagine what she would have been like. I made up stories that she was this artist who was a lot like me. I imagined having conversations with her and a relationship with her. I have a bunch of poems and stories about her now.

V* Did you make up stories about who we were? We, who were right there?

J* I did. But the stories I made up about you all were made up out of my insecurities. Not from really imagining or the truth. Just… my insecurities. Like I had made up that Bettye didn’t like me because I didn’t finish college and you didn’t like me because I wasn’t religious enough. Or something like that.

V* I remember when I first met you. You must have been around ten. I remember that you were always quiet around me. I said even back then that you were this deep child.

(Pause from typing and note taking here. Just listening. To my aunt.)

A part of my deep regret is that my children didn’t grow up around cousins. That had an impact on us. An impact on me knowing you.

J* You know, I believe that whenever you have your mind made up that something is true then evidence for that belief shows up all around you. Since I believed I wasn’t religious enough or something enough for you something was bound to happen as proof of my belief.

One day, a long time ago, I was on Roshann’s computer and you instant messaged her while I was on it. I think you said something like, “Hello my wonderful niece.” I responded saying that it was me and not her. Then you didn’t respond. For me that was my “proof” that said seeeeeeeeeee, it’s true. If I was Roshann she would have kept talking to me.

Looking back, I know that it’s possible that something could have happened or that I’m not even remembering the event accurately. But in my remembering, that’s what happened. I guess that was as much my proof as was when Mo didn’t know that we were related was proof for you. Of something. Of our disconnection at least.

(Val shared an incident with me when a group of poets we know were in her home and she had cooked for them and they were sharing together. In their conversation my name came up and the group was surprised not just that we were related but that we even knew each other.)

V* I’m sorry that whatever happened that day (when I was at Roshann’s computer) built further separation between us.

J* Like I said, something was bound to happen, because I believed something was true. Proof was going to show up.

V* There are things I could have and maybe ought to have done as an aunt. And I don’t think there are too many ought tos in the earth. I think elders have responsibilities in the community. If you’re not practicing with your own kin then how are you going to be an elder? When my dad died and my mom died I became the matriarch in the family. I was so not ready to be a matriarch. I was not ready to be hearing from my nieces and nephews. I didn’t have practice in being present to the people that need me. I say that to say that I would imagine that you and the other nieces and nephews on the Davis side, Bridgeman side, need elders. The people who need elders shouldn’t always have to go looking for them. They should be ready to be that. I hope that makes sense.

J* We do what we know how to do. And that’s it.

V* Yeah, I don’t feel guilty about it. I feel sad about it. It goes back to what Sharon was saying about my commitment to the art. Not buying into the lie that it’s too late. It’s never too late to be who you’re supposed to be.

J* What do you wanna do, with your show, with you art?

V* Right now I wanna reconnect to it. (She laughs. But I can tell it’s not a joke. I know that laughter. I know that need to reconnect to… art.) I’ve been living in the fear around it. Like maybe I’m not as good as my friends think I am. Now I’m at a spot in my life where I have to. Even if it’s not beautiful to anybody but me. And it doesn’t even have to be beautiful to me. Just done. Both doing the poetry and some stage stuff.

I’m learning to swim. I was going over it in my head. “In my fiftieth year, do I learn to swim or pick the clarinet back up?” It took me half the year to decide that swimming would get me further down the road with my art.

J* I’m glad you chose swimming. I don’t have a relationship with the clarinet, but I know water. Swimming is very healing for me.

V* Don used to say to me, “Other people bring home stray puppies, you bring home stray people.” But I, in the midst of everything that has happened in the last couple of years, find myself getting small and I don’t like that. I don’t want to be a small person. I used to trust first. And just trust people. Really trust them. Then I got to the place where I didn’t. And I don’t like that.

My life started unraveling. I felt myself getting smaller and smaller and trusting fewer and fewer. And so this year for me has really been about shifting that to the open space. People hurt you. You hurt people. It’s called being human. That’s what forgiveness is for. But rather than work through the pain I started battening down the hatches. Started pulling my heart back in from the world.

When I moved to Memphis, Jonathan moved upstairs. When he talked to my kids on the phone he would say, “I can’t say enough about your mom. Opening her heart and her doors to me.” My son would say, my mom is a mama. I think about Alice Walker saying in IN SEARCH OF OUR MOTHERS’ GARDENS, “She stays in community. She doesn’t withdraw except for reasons of heath.”

As I started to withdraw I thought it would just be too easy to not get naked on the stage again. In any way. This year I went on a cruise. Even with my friends there with me I found myself being guarded. I found myself saying, “You gotta get over this. You gotta risk being hurt again.” As a part of being human.

I remember one day my mom was in the kitchen and my dad was yelling about her not being enough of something and he quoted from 1 Peter “Even as Sarah obeyed Abraham, whose daughters you are, calling Abraham lord”. I can see it like it was yesterday. She stopped and she said, “Well, you’re not Abraham and I’m not Sarah and these are not Abrahams times.” It was that moment that she told us without telling us that you don’t have to take that. And don’t let anyone use the Bible to make you feel small.

J* What is the tribe?

V* A group of young adults gathered around me. I started saying in Memphis, I can’t find my tribe. Then I heard Spirit saying, “It’s time to call them together.” I called four people and said, “Hey, I’m having a gathering at my house. Will you come? We did poetry and sang and I don’t remember if we painted. But we shared art. That began a season of people saying, “Hey, I have somebody they I think you need to meet.” They would bring people to the house. I never knew who would be there. I wasn’t producing as much, but I felt like we were holding each other accountable.

J* Are they still with you?

V* Yeah. The tribe exists no matter where we are. We did a major performance together in Austin. Then my life started falling apart and I don’t think they could reach me. emotionally. But then we slowly started coming back around. Yeah. There is still work to do around that.

I sat there and listened to her. To Val. Aunt Val. Though I don’t really call any of my aunts or uncles aunt or uncle. I listened to her stories. The texture of her wonderful voice. The passion she has for her art. Her path to reconnection to it. As she read her poetry to me I was inspired. In awe. In love.

When I am Asked

For my sons

When I am asked, “what did you do for the revolution?”
I will answer that I was suckling the seeds
Of the next rebellion at my breast,
Raising black men whose first response
To every request will be “why?”

I will answer that I was instructing the saplings
Of the next revolution in the school of my experiences,
Raising black men whose first response
To every adversity will be a straight back
And a stiffened will.

I will say that I used my time wisely,
Making forays into enemy territory
To reclaim the stolen esteem
And broken spirit of my offspring,
That I rocked them back to health
Time and again in the lap of my resolve.

When I am asked, “what did you do for the revolution?”
I will introduce to the world
My sons.

It will happen

You consciously pour your words like a libation
Onto the world, and worry that your content
Is not deep.

But what do you know, yet, of the political lives we lead?

Your life is connected mainly at your loins,
And the main goal you hold is not to be alone.
But it will happen, brother, that one day, dead babies
In the Sudan, Nicaragua, Bosnia, and Afghanistan
Will direct your passion from the bedroom to the streets.

You will wonder at April days that steal black leaders
For death; you will miss Barbara Jordan’s deep voice,
And Carl Stokes’ laughter and cigarettes

You will know the revolutionaries Angela Davis,
Eldridge Cleave, Martin King, Malcolm X, and Sonya Sanchez
You will know the exiles and pray for them

It will happen
That you will see the color-coded world around you
You will honor your skin by acknowledging it
You will not romanticize or demonize it
You will know it and name it rightly,
Giving it the amount of attention it deserves

And you will write love songs, erotic poems
That capture every sensation and take our breath with yours,
Making us pause and gasp in unison.

You will begin to hear voices, louder, more insistent,
Demanding you to write these words, here.
You will wander into forgotten neighborhoods,
Look into forgotten faces, tell forgotten stories
So we will never forget.


  1. Thanks Jaha, for the conversation, and the tenderness with which you held my heart. Only one correction (incredibly since we talked for 2 hours): Tribe began in Memphis, not Austin. In Austin they started called me "mama to the poets." But, wow....

  2. ohhhhh, your tribe began lifetimes ago, but ok

  3. That's funny, and I agree.... but I was talking about the manifested crew that we did all that work with. I felt the Tribe all day today; I think I felt the ancient ones...

  4. Hey Jaha,
    Here's the second/last part of "It will happen." I kept saying to myself, something is missing LOL. It's page two:
    You will listen into the nights to music; catch dreams
    With your pen, sing, create a new heaven and a new earth.

    It will happen
    That you will one day question everything,
    From God to your own love, turn universes inside out
    Looking for answers; some answers you will find,
    Most you won’t; but you will succeed in learning
    The right questions.

    You will grow old with words, and weary of speaking them;
    You will not always seek them, so you will learn silence
    And savor it; hold it against you until it is time to speak again.

    And you will speak again.
    And again.
    It will happen.