09 October 2011


Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary. -Steve Jobs, Stanford Commencement speech, 2005 (full text and video here)

A very difficult week, filled with losses - and the lessons about how hard you have to push to change the world.

Fred Shuttlesworth
Shuttlesworth, Abernathy and King
may not be a household name to most, but as one of the 'Big 3' of the Civil Rights Movement along with Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy, his influence looms large. He and King were, in a sense, the 'Good Cop/Bad Cop' of the movement, as author Diane McWhorter says, "Shuttlesworth was in the vanguard of direct action, pushing towards confrontation. King was the person who could really deal with white people and was more conciliatory. The two of them together formed a dialectic that drove the movement forward." Such death-defying defiance as his was desperately needed in the horrifying atmosphere of "Bombingham" Alabama in the early 1960s.

Derrick Bell
may also not be a familiar name, but as the first tenured African-American professor of Law at Harvard, and founder of Critical Race Theory, which explores how racism is embedded in laws and legal institutions, he and his legacy loom large (his Race, Racism and American Law is now a standard law school textbook). He may be even more well known for taking an unpaid leave of absence from Harvard in 1990, saying he would not return until the school appointed a female of color to its tenured faculty. I also remember him joining the contingent of Black Gay Men who participated in the Million Man March in 1995 as a 'straight ally.' Author of numerous books, he was also known for his use of stories to illuminate his legal and civil rights points, most particularly in his famous "The Space Traders" which imagines what might happen if aliens offered to solve all the US' problems in exchange for all the country's Black people. As poet, author, and Michigan State University law professor Brian Gilmore commented, "If James Baldwin had been a lawyer, he would have been Derrick Bell."

Much of the week, and the blogosphere, has been taken up with expressions of sadness regarding the death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs -- and rightly so for a man whose products and influence seem ubiquitous in this digital age. His name appears on 317 patents, ranging from the Macintosh Operating System to computer mice, to the packaging Apple products come in and the adapters used to power them. Even those of us who don't use Macs owe Jobs a huge tip of the hat for Apple's work on the Graphical User Interface (and many of us have said for years that Microsoft has 'borrowed' Apple's ideas time and time again and applied them to Windows). And I'm sure I'm not the only PC person who would go into an Apple store and swoon at how *beautifully designed* their products are. Purely for making technology attractive and, well, sensuous (note how well the curve-edged iPod fits into the hand) Jobs deserves our unending gratitude. And I haven't even mentioned the animated pleasures of the films of Pixar studios, which he purchased in 1986...

One of the more interesting recent articles about Jobs, and one that in some ways ties each of these three extraordinary men together, is this one, In Praise of Bad Steve by D.B. Grady. As the author says, we want to remember people positively, as always being good, kind, generous...but sometimes in order to get things done right, you have to be a Bad Cop, and push people - into innovation in Jobs' case, into doing the right thing in the case of Shuttlesworth and Bell.Always dissatisfied, always pushing, always innovating, these giants changed our world, and I am greatful to all three.


As I was writing this, news of another, perhaps more personal, loss came through as well: professor and fellow Cave Canem poet James Richardson. Sadly I didn't know him well (he was one of the many people who I have a mainly e-mail relationship), but will forever be moved by the generosity of offering his apartment to The Other Half and myself when he was teaching at Morehouse, despite not being familiar with us. This reinforces the messages I have been seeing from fellow poets about his 'beautiful soul,' in addition to his brilliance, and skills as a violinist - and salsa dancer. He will be missed.

Thanks to Brian Gilmore (again!) here is a Richardson poem that appeared in the Autumn 1999 issue of Callaloo.


homegirl, I'm thinking: are you really free? 

cause in every portrait the very pores 
of your wild-black skin scream, wracked with ennui, 
trapped in Quaker grays that smother wooden floors. 
how often do they pat your defiant hair? 
and why are your eyeballs stretched puppy-wide? 
your tall, tight collar thwarts sin (and air). 
that's no small feat: you've so much black to hide. 
i bet in your mind you laugh your thighs apart 
on velvet-lush plains, your teeth to the sun. 
all soaked in color, you sniff strange sweat and start: 
too late. sun-pink flesh, rattling chains, a gun. 
they ask: art thou joyful, freed christian lass? 
you answer with sugar, with salt, with ground glass.