Art of Life, Activism and Poetry: A Memoir

By Askia M Touré

1940s. A young woman named Elnora Mills posing with partner.

My parents were Black Southerners who met at Hampton Institute (now University) in Virginia. They were dedicated students. My father, Clifford R. Snellings, was an agriculture student, but he desired to attend medical school. He was an outstanding football player and all around athlete. My mom, Nancy was quite artistic, studied Home Economics, and sang in the then famous Hampton choir…

When the Depression worsened, they were forced to leave Hampton, and find work in New York City. My father enrolled in mechanical drafting school and became a draftsman. Later they were hired by Wright-Patterson Air Development (Wright Field) in Dayton, Ohio during World War II. I was born just before the war, in 1938, in Raleigh, NC, and stayed with my mother’s family there. Later, I was sent to live with my paternal grandparents, in LaGrange, which is in Southwest GA. I lived there in LaGrange until I was four years old. My parents came to LaGrange and retrieved me, and took me with them to Dayton, Ohio. They were complete strangers to me. I had bonded with my grandparents. And this was the first painful separation in my young life…

Dayton, Ohio in the 1940s was like a Black Nation within a Nation!

Most of our Community institutions were African-American owned and prosperous. We owned our own banks, super markets, churches, drug-stores, night clubs – everything.

White people owned Downtown. They were “foreigners” to us. People we saw on television.

We owned Dayton’s Black Westside. We had our own indigenous leaders: ministers, business people, politicians, educators, various professionals. I soon felt comfortable and protected within a warm, prosperous Black Nation. No drugs or killer-cops threatened our neighbourhoods! We knew whites had certain racial advantages; but we operated as the rivals.

We had good schools, excellent teachers. Dayton had a citywide a spelling-bee; we either won or came in a close second. Rivals!

We also dominated in some sports: often winners or close second place: Rivals!

We Westside youth never felt that the white kids were smarter than us. We felt that they were richer, more privileged – but not smarter. We also had a strong musical Culture, Rhythm & Blues, which also dominated American music… There was always art.

The “Negro Romance” comics of the 1950s

So, I began as a visual artist when I was in the U.S. Air force as a young man. In the Air force of the 1950s, there were many writers, visual artists, and musicians. I came under the influence of an officer who was very talented, a Modernist artist who was deeply influenced by Picasso. He encouraged me to paint, write and experiment with words and images. Soon, after duty hours, I went to the local art institute classes with an outstanding Black artist named Ronald Fant from Pittsburgh. This was the first time I’d been in the company of a Black professional artist. Fant was “hard”, well-trained and a serious Master. He saw right through my BS and excuses; instructing me on how I was to think if I truly wanted to develop into a professional visual artist. I began to paint, and I finished several canvasses. Not long afterward, several of us were able to get “early outs” from the Air Force, in order to attend college or professional schools. After attending the Art Institute in Dayton, Ohio a friend and fellow veteran, artist-administrator William Day and I decided to travel to New York City, to begin art school at the Art Students League of New York. While attending the League, I met several artists, including our celebrated, young maestro, artist-illustrator, Tom Feelings. Tom examined my paintings and drawings, and put me in touch with the great Black modern master Jacob Lawrence.

I met him, bringing him my work for examination. He gave me a strong criticism, and pointed out my strengths andmy weaknesses. I followed his instructions, sometimes working all night, in my drive to become a serious painter. Tom Feelings took me under his wings, and began to

Tom Dent, legendary Umbra poet.

introduce me to New York’s Black cultural world. One night he called and asked me to accompany him to a meeting of young Black poets, the Umbra Writers’ Workshop. Umbra, headed by Tom Dent and Calvin C Hernton, welcomed me, and introduced me to brilliant young poets Lorenzo Thomas, David Henderson, Ishmael Reed, N.H. Pritchard and Brenda Walcott.

Tom lived right across the street from this dynamic, charismatic painter-sculptor, whom he had attended school with at Syracuse, University named Aldo Tambellini, an Italian. In visiting Aldo’s storefront studio, I began to be influenced by one of the most innovative, visionary artist-activists in New York’s East Village. Much of what I learned from Aldo was how to “think” as a committed, socially-conscious artist-activist. Aldo also expanded my vision to include all aspects of the Cosmos in my work. I began to absorb the rhythms of the trees, the subtle grandeur of the seasons, the beauties of sky, wind and storm. I began to expand beyond humanity alone, but attempted to absorb and record the rhythms of nature, linked with the complex rhythms of Black music. A major poem that I created was “Floodtide” inspired by my Black Southern experience. I got the initial rhythm from Black poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s vivid “The Corn Song”. I attempted to recreate the communal, peasant culture of the Southern Black tenant farmers, their ongoing battles with Nature, and the racist lynching’s of white klansmen – also projected as hostile acts of nature. The rhythmic dynamism of the stanzas was the syncopation of Black folk music. “Floodtide” was the first major poem of my youth!

It apparently convinced master poet Calvin Hernton that I had potential. He then began to instruct me further, and during that period, Calvin and Tom Dent asked me to read with the brilliant Umbra poets. I began to show my paintings, which also developed visually and politically, including a large triptych at the Fulton (Street) Art Fair in Brooklyn which was a local Black Art Academy, led by Jacob Lawrence and fellow-arts master, Ernest Critchlow.

From left to right: Everett Hoagland, Eddy Toussaint Tontongi, Brenda Walcott, Tennessee Reed, Ishmael Reed, Menelik Van der Meer (back), Askia Toure, Jocelyn Almeida, Neil Callender (back) and Tony Medina. (Martin Beveridge not seen) Liberation Poetry Anthology at the Pierre Menard Gallery in 2010. Photo by Glen Shapland.

Of course, I also began to create my early poems at the Umbra Workshop. For a while, I was both writing and painting equally. But soon the writing began to dominate the visual art.

I began to seriously “paint with words.” I began to develop a lyrical, highly imagistic poetry, whose rhythmic stanzas were syncopated like Black Rhythm & Blues and Jazz. Well, as the man said, “the rest is history.”

Umbra’s leaders, Tom, Calvin and David, asked Ishmael Reed (a very gifted poet, later a master novelist) and me to read with them, representing the Workshop. They later added me to the staff of Umbra journal. Officially, I was a poet! Since then, my work has developed along the lines of being highly imagistic, lyrically influenced by Black Music (Jazz), and filled with mythical and political metaphor, strongly influenced by WB Yeats, Pablo Neruda, Langston Hughes, and the Negritude poets Aime Cesaire, Leon Damas and Leopold Senghor.

By the 1960s and ‘70s we young artist-activists saw ourselves as social/cultural visionaries. We desired and demanded a Cultural Revolution, moving hand-in-hand with a coming political Revolution which seemed to be emerging. It was led by the Black working people in the Steel and Auto industries, in the service industries, and allied with the Latino community in the crowded urban areas; and among the students and youths politicized by the Anti-Vietnam War movement. The Civil Rights Movement was surging into confrontation with Southern, Jim Crow racist forces…we began to feel that we needed more than just integration/assimilation into racist, white culture and domination:

We demanded Power & Self-determination – Black Power“, rather than a racist white power…We began to follow Bro. Malcolm X’s advice, when asked that we “imagine a liberated Future.” And what would Black Liberation look like?

Indeed, what would Black people look likeonce they were liberated? Immediately, we began to regrow our African hair,

Angela Davis speaking during the Black Power Movement. AP

kinky “Afros” replacing straightened, chemically processed hair… Pride in History & Heritage. We began creating “Freedom Schools” in the South and North. We became Pan-African, while the Black masses began to rebel against police murders in the North, East & West, while Southern Blacks answered King’s and SCLC’s “Non-violence” with Self-Defence.

Every summer, the “Long, Hot Summer” mass uprisings began. Out of the “Freedom Schools” came Africana Studies; or Black Studies (followed by Latino Studies, Asian and Native American Studies; finally Women’s Studies & Gay Studies by the ‘70s).

During this time, I was dedicated to growing my art so that it represented personal transformation and the political transformation of the time.

Starting with “From the Pyramids to the Projects,” I have devoted my art to uplifting the images of African (Black) women. From my ancient epics, to modern poems, I’ve written praise-poems, elegies for young heroines such as Venus & Serena Williams, activists Assata Shakur, director Barbara Ann Teer, poet Gwendolyn Brooks, queen NZingha of Matamba, queen Cleopatra of Kemet, singer Diana Ross, activist-scholar Oare’ Dozier, educator Dr Mary M. Bethune, abolitionist Harriet Tubman, poet Kamaria Muntu, as well as school-girls, Hip Hop divas and young single project mothers.

Black Power Movement Images. Circa 1960s.

And while my art was growing to exalt African history and legacy, the uphill battle of getting my art seen began.

Evidently, since the poems were not on TV or “facebook” they remain marginalised. I’ve gotten absolutely no response or feed-back from most sistas, Black women! Maybe I should and should have done cds or dvds, like rappers, since, apparently it seems like most grassroots Black women don’t read poetry written by professional Black male writers… Black women, that is the audience I hope to capture, because I write about Black women. But apparently, they rely on Hip-Hop cds/dvds, rather than the myriad books of poetry written by Black male poets. The only exception in my rather painful experience with the masses of grassroots Black women, was my political elegy “Palenque Queen by Habana’s Shores,” written for Sis Assata Shakur.

Askia Toure and Kanasha S. Herbert 2009

What occurred was in the late ‘90s, my Boston activist comrades financed a project making the poem a political poster. It’s on the Afro-Cuban Web – and with that, activist sistas responded, from all over the country. Many have the Assata poster in their homes. To further consolidate my stance, as a champion of the beauty, dignity and sacredness of Black women, I wrote a short play, “Double-Dutch, a Gathering of Women.” I spoke with Boston’s major actress and Director, Sis Jacqui Parker, who agreed to read the play. She contacted two Black brothers who made and directed Black films. We talked, and they agreed to film “Double-Dutch”. An “Indy” film made in 2003, “Double-Dutch” won Best Director at the Roxbury film festival. To a packed house of mainly sistas, the film-makers and I were wildly cheered and questioned about our curious ‘Black Dialogue’, filmed from the perspective of Black women. They seemed amazed that a group of Black men would step up and be their champions and cultural knights. One thing I noticed was that when sisters are deeply serious about a cultural happening, they invite their mothers.

I remember the shocking thought, that if this film doesn’t work, being the author and screen-writer, I would have failed before the Black women of Boston. Their thunderous applause, cheers, and continuous dialogue proved that that little film spoke to the heart of the women of Black Boston.

I discovered that when the sistas really love something, they’ll support it and raise it up. The actresses in “Double-Dutch, A Gathering of Women,” were the top Black actresses in Boston, including playwright/director, Jacqui Parker herself! Truly, it was one of the finest moments of my eventful life. Amid the adrenalin rush, I, for the first time, became aware of the “magical” power of the Word of the Djali, attached to the spiritual/cultural/intellectual skills of committed Black women, linked to a triumphant Vision of themselves and their destiny.

I have grown from just being a poet in the standard (Western) definition from my humble Umbra days. I grew to be a Djali, an African Story-teller, epic visionary, who has developed the literary metaphorical language in order to resurrect

Askia Toure smiling, at work in front of the podium.

the Ancient images, symbolism and metaphors which highlight the African System of human growth and spiritual development. A Djali reposition the traditional Africa, and the ancient Nile Valley Civilizations, Kemet and Kush/Ta-Seti in present day society. In truth, I’m attempting in literature, what Drs Clarke, Diop, Hilliard, Finch & Ani are doing in History.

So it was then and there, with the film, that my commitment as a Djali/Griot was reinforced due to the insight of experience. So, self-critically, this teaches me that I have to be innovative in the methods that I use to bring my work to the attention of the masses of Black women. Being a skilled writer is not enough. One must innovate! As far as the apparent inaction of many male artists, filmmakers and writers, I think that they’re too caught up in their battles for male “identity.” Of course, this is unconscious sexism! As the great saying goes, “Women hold up half of the sky!” Too many male artists have unconscious, patriarchal issues.

If our Black Liberation Cultural Paradigm is to be successful, Black or African must mean more than the male identity or destiny. One of the things that I learned from the mouths of John H Clarke and the great Cheikh Anta Diop, and Queen Mother Audley Moore is that leaders and patriots come from both genders.

The African continent is originally the Realm of human Matriarchy. Until destructive invasions by Rampaging Patriarchy (from East and West), Africa was the Realm of the Primordial Female…as proof, Africa was the only Continent and Culture, whose Civilizations produced empowered, ruling Queens. The Nile Valley culture (Kemet and Kush/Nubia) was the only civilization where ruling power was shared equally by male and female rulers, which reflects the ruling tradition of Ausar/Auset (Osiris/Isis, Greek).

When I created “DawnSong!,” book one of the Nile Valley epic, I made it my business to write from this feminine perspective… In “Isis Unbound, the Goddess Poems,” book two of the Nile Valley epic (which is in its final stages) I continue with short stories about Nilotic queens.

Naturally, the internal forces help shape and mould the process of my writing. And this is employed in every book I’ve written. But to be fair and honest, I have read and studied seemingly hundreds of history volumes; thousands of hours of scholarly articles while attending lectures by the pioneering historians of my time. These scholars, John H Clarke, Asa G Hilliard III, Charles Finch, Larry Obadele Williams, Cheikh Anta Diop, Ivan Van Sertima, Marimba Ani, Martin Bernal, Robert Schoch, Robert Bauval and many others appear to prime the pump…just like Trane practicing for hours on his horn, daily, so that it becomes an extension of him; it, in fact, becomes like his Inner Psyche. All of this Inner Work becomes the “Language” through which one speaks with the Muse/Orishas and Ancestors. Not only have I studied the world’s great epic poets—particularly Homer, Virgil, Yeats, Shelley, and Neruda—but also the moderns, like Senghor, Cesaire, Ginsburg, LeRoi Jones/Baraka, Margaret Walker, DuBois, Rilke, Rumi, Iqbal and others. Out of this research work and deep communication produced, is what has been defined as “Classical” poetry, or the Epic which I modified and developed as my particular Language.

Frankly, throughout the years I’ve become more comfortable with “epic, visionary” as definitions of my poetry. I feel that the term “classical” can be a slippery slope for any artist. Though critics have used that word to describe my work, I’m always uncomfortable. It seems to imply that s/he are too ‘full of themselves’. I view that terminology as more of the language of the removed literary critic or scholar. However, when “Dawnsong!” first emerged to be purchased on sites like Amazon.com, it was placed next to translations of the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, The Epic of the Cid, and other major historical epics. This seems to say that the language I speak in is the epic.

The only major critique of “Dawnsong!” was written by Dr James Smethurst, the author of “The Black Arts Movement, Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s.” Dr Smethurst compared it to the epic history and sweep of Pablo Neruda’s “Canto General”. The majority of my dear colleagues, the African-American professors and literary scholars, abstained from reviewing “Dawnsong!”, with a tense, national silence, as though I had loudly broke-wind during a church service.

But, apparently, there’s a split among scholars. The African-American Literature and Cultural Society, an affiliate of the American Literature Association awarded “Dawnsong!” the 2003 Stephen Henderson Poetry Award…

Yet, the silence continues: even my publisher, Third World Press of Chicago, failed to announce the award, until I contacted their then Publicity Director! So far, this Black literary “classic” (critic’s words, not mine) has only been lauded, praised and appreciated by white American professors, critics and graduate students. At the University Of Maine, thirty graduate students, raised copies of “Dawnsong!” above their heads when I entered their seminar. Their young, beaming faces reflected their admiration. Within their cultural references, they joyfully compared “Dawnsong!” to The Lord of the Rings! They sat at my feet, and spoke of the “vision and originality” of the book; treatment as though I were some kind of literary guru. While expressing my appreciation to the young future scholars, something inside whispered, “why isn’t this also Howard, Spelman, or Morehouse”?

Eric Zinman Aldo Tambellini and Askia Toure in 2010

Writing this last part has been very painful to me. It felt as though there had been a “banning” of my work by what I believe are cowardly Black literary scholars! And yes, while there are poets and scholars who love the Work (my complete body of work); some seem threatened by the Kemetic Dawnsong!

Of all my writings, “Dawnsong!” was the source of my depression.

Umbra Issue 2, 1963.

Black scholarship has been remiss in keeping the legacy of great literature at the forefront, while marginalising scholars who do. Scholars like Joyce Ann Joyce come to mind, but I am sure she is not the only one.

Dawnsong! Is part of an epic, Historical Process, which began with the epic poems, “From the Pyramids to the Projects, From the Projects to the Stars”, “Transformations, Will the Circle Be Unbroken”, and “Juju”, a jazz epic written for the master John Coltrane/Onadaruth…

Of all my work, “Pyramids” (written in the late ‘80s) came swiftly flowing out of my psyche, in one singular piece…I was at work. I always had a pen and notebook with me during that time… It just flowed, like water; it seemed separate from my consciousness.

Later, though more subtle, Dawnsong!, the epic poem , from which I named the volume came… After “Pyramids,” “Juju,” and “Transformations,” my conscious mind began to “catch up” with the inner psyche…I began to realize that I was in the Ancestor Realms, or Shamanism. Shamanism is about possession and I knew that is my work, a possession. Shamanism or Trance, deep Creativity, is about one becoming a “horse” for the Ancestral Spirits and Orishas to “ride”!

During that period in my life in Atlanta, Georgia, I was deeply into practicing Yoga, meditating two to three times every day, which I believed linked me with the Sacred Realm of the Ancestors…

———————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

Askia M Touré is one of the co-architects of the Black Aesthetics Movement of the 1960s along with other notable poets such as Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez, Sonia Sanchez and Larry Neal. He has won numerous awards including the American Book Award in 1989. This is part 1 of his 2 part memoir with Femficātiō.

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