Sunday, February 09, 2014

24th Annual African American Celebration through Poetry at the West Oakland Library

Brother Sidney pouring libations, photo: Wanda Sabir
Funny how time slips away, we are almost 25 and I remember the first Celebration so many years ago. I want to thank Paradise for his support over the years and his special help this year with rehearsal and programming. I also want to thank the alumni who go back double digit years like Avotcja and Steve McCutchen. Thanks also to Katabazi for the sound system and to our many ancestors –artists and poets whose lives and work we recall often: Kamau Seitu, Joy Holland, Mr. Vernice, Reginald Lockett, Mary Rudge, Upesi Mtambuzi, Brother Yusuf Al Waajid, Samuel Fredericks, and poets who haven’t been here in many years due to illness such as Lee Williams, William Brown and Darlene Roberts.

Imamu Amiri Baraka made his transition last month. He walked revolution as his pen spewed hail, fire and brimstone. His departure caused a drop in temperatures— his exit shifted the atmosphere as much as his presence shifted our consciousness, his life an example of contemplative or reflective leadership. He stood up and up and up despite the rock, gravity and steep inclines.

Nelson Mandela, or Madiba was a lovely man whose long walk to freedom is an example of a tenacity and huge love for African people. We dedicate this reading to Mandela and his resistance to the South African system of Apartheid, a system philosophically close to American Apartheid or Jim Crow, this New Jim Crow similar as well to the neo-apartheid system post-ANC rule.

I was in South Africa when the African National Congress made 100 years old. It was at that time that Oprah Winfrey’s high school there had its first graduating class. It was also a time when unemployment was high and students died while trying to enroll in the nearby universities where I was staying in Jo’burg.

There was a big gala event in the region where the revolutionaries got together to craft their resistance movement— Now the president of South Africa heads the UN. Mandela’s South Africa is still a dream –like Martin King’s. I wonder about the remembered states of consciousness—sleeping and waking. The somnolent state might be a creative necessity but what about justice? One can’t measure dreams.

Nonetheless we cannot dismiss Mandela’s long walk, his sacrifice (27 years in prison), the loss of his family, his son’s death and one daughter’s love . . . it was a tremendous sacrifice for freedom, a freedom that still eludes the majority of South Africans (similarly King’s elusive dream as relates to Black Americans).

The rain stopped a few, but for those who weathered the inclement or stormy weather the intimacy of the West Oakland Library facility at 18th and Adeline, proved worth the effort as in years past. We had lots of yummy snacks prepared by library staff and many empty seats as 12 noon rolled into 1:10 as the borrowed sound system --damaged in transport by the rain was taken down and then the Stones of Fire gathered in another room to creatively adjust amplified sound to acoustic.

Our youngest poet, Enzi (5), photo: Wanda Sabir

Stones of Fire (Wo'se), photo: Wanda Sabir

Sidney and Katabazi, photo: Wanda Sabir

Katabazi, photo: Wanda Sabir
Paradise, photo: Wanda Sabir

Paradise, photo: Wanda Sabir

Paradise, photo: Wanda Sabir

Aries Jordon, photo: Wanda Sabir

Talibah, photo: Wanda Sabir

Joy Elan, photo: Wanda Sabir

Bryant and Zakiyyah Bolling, photo: Wanda Sabir

9th Son of a Preacher Man, photo: Wanda Sabir

9th Son of a Preacher Man,photo: Wanda Sabir

Audience, Aqueila Lewis standing in rear, photo: Wanda Sabir

Bryant Bolling photo: Wanda Sabir

9th Son of a Preacher Man, photo: Wanda Sabir

9th Son of a Preacher Man, photo: Wanda Sabir

Aqueila Lewis, photo: Wanda Sabir

Amirah "Female King,"photo: Wanda Sabir

Enzi and his mom and little brother photo: Wanda Sabir
Dr. Ellen Foster Randle, photo: Wanda Sabir

Dr. Ellen Foster Randle
photo: Wanda Sabir

Dr. Ellen Foster Randle
photo: Wanda Sabir

9th Son and Bryant Bolling
photo: Wanda Sabir

Avotcja, photo: Wanda Sabir

Zakiyyah G.E.Capehart Bolling (9th Son)
photo: Wanda Sabir

Amirah and nephew, photo: Wanda Sabir

Amirah with nephew, Avotcja, Ammnah and Enzi (poets)
photo: Wanda Sabir

Zakiyyah G.E. Bolling
photo: Wanda Sabir
Brother Sidney, Wo'se House of Amen Ra's master drummer, poured libations as members of the choir sang and hummed the Sweet Honey song, "Ancestor's Breath." Library Director Marygay Ducey then welcomed the audience to the library and spoke about the history of the branch and libraries with a few anecdotes about the special bus program for preschoolers at the branch twice a week where hundreds of youngsters come to story time and then check out books. She invited the audience to stop by to see and enjoy the little ones.

We'd hoped the current Youth Poet Laureate for the City of Oakland, Obasi Davis, would join us and share his work, but such was not the case. Currently applications are being accepted from teens interested in the position for next year, Feb. 1-April 7, 2014. The applicants have to either reside in Oakland or attend school here. To apply on-line: or contact Amy Sonnie, Teen Outreach Librarian, at (510) 238-7233 or

The West Oakland Public Library is regularly purging the shelves and giving away books, collectors items --I picked up a stack of books with authors, Sonia Sanchez, Toni Cade Bambara, Alice Walker, Margaret Walker, James Weldon Johnson and others.

The Poetry Celebration this year was a tribute to Nelson Mandela: A Voice for Freedom and a few poets specifically referenced the first president of a free South Africa in their work: Stones of Fire and Aqueila Lewis, however, all work was welcome.  After about an hour and a half we moved into the open mic portion of the program, which is always of the same high caliber of performance as the featured section; our youngest poet that afternoon, Enzi, who'd patiently waited for three hours with his mom and little brother, shared a poem by Langston Hughes. As he lifted himself off the floor, his arms holding the edge of the stage--his mother provided him a few cues from the back of the room when he dropped a line, the audience was on their feet when he finished reciting. He responded to a question from me about his age as he parted with the words, "I love my Mommy."

Among the alumni, Avotcja shared work from her recent book, With Every Step I Take (2013), featuring illustrations from Eliza Shefler. She spoke about Multiple sclerosis (MS) which affects both she and her illustrator's lives and the "so-called 'acceptable risk'" and environmental factors in place which result in health disparities like MS. She spoke about working in fields where crops had been dusted before such was curtailed by the work of Dolores Huerta and the mercury in her mouth which is so toxic its use is banned in most counties, (not ours). Her first poem was followed by a wonderful history lesson of Heaven on Seventh Street and the angels who resided there, among them one, Johnny Heartsman (whom I confused with Johnny Hartman, a balladeer who was the only singer to record with John Coltrane). Heartsman, born in San Fernando, California, became Avotcja's guide in this wonderland. Both Heartsman (Feb. 9, 1937-Dec. 27, 1996) and Hartman, died early, 59 and 60 respectively.

Heartsman's legacy is kept alive in Avotcja's seminal "Oaktown Blues," a poem, a play, an anthem to the ancestors who resided walking distance from where we sat Saturday afternoon ( The performances of the play at the Oakland Museum of California and the Malonga Theatre, where I saw it, with the late Khalil Shahid performing made poetic musical literary history.

Richard Moore, "Paradise," shared both new and old work. Performance poet par excellence, he opened with a satirical sermon and then shifted into an equally provocative poem he hadn't shared in quite sometime, "Jeffery D," which looked at the legacy of killer Jeffery Dahmer who literally ate black people. He closed with "Black History is World History," which I hope he will submit for our 25th Anniversary Anthology.

Another Poetry Celebration alumni Aqueila Lewis shared three pieces: "Who's Gonna Save Them When the Ghosts Live Here?", "A Star Rises from the East," which spoke to her roots in East Oakland (smile) and "How Do We Go on When the Poet Dies? Remembering Amiri Baraka."

Other highlights included Aries Jordon's address to the elders in "Where Were You?" and "Before They Were Mothers." The first was a hard hitting cry for long absent assistance in the maturation process.  There are a lot of complaints about today's youth, but where were you when they were born and then growing up? The second poem was a sweet reflection on women in the poet's life before they were mothers and a thank you to them for the sacrifice of that former self as they grew into matriarchy.

Joy Elan, a deaf or hearing impaired poet spoke about our legacy and the need to teach the youth. Periodically she had to step off her soap box, but it was all good as her eloquent poetry made us hunger for more. She announced as did other writers: Aqueila and Aries current collections which were available or soon to be available.

I shared a piece I'd written a few weeks prior called "On Holy Ground" which is a reflection on a recent theft. I then read poems from Lucille Clifton (blessing the boats) and Amiri Baraka (Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, Ka'Ba, Monday in B-Flat, and Wise I).

Dr. Ellen Foster Randle kindly dropped by in the midst of a rushed day to speak about something dear to her heart, the Negro Spiritual Tradition, and then sang a lovely traditional hymn.

Talibah sang a song she learned from Elaine Brown of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. More a call to action and a cheer to those comrades knee deep in the work to keep moving she rendered it powerfully. Then 9th Son of a Preacher Man worked the room as he took us on a journey through black history which did not start with slavery.

First time guest, Zakiyyah G. E. Capehart Bolling with accompaniment by husband, Bryant Bolling, was eloquent in the work "Drum Beat," "Brooklyn on My Mind," "Voices from Nine-Eleven," and "M.R.I. (My Reasonable Imagination)." That evening many of us went to her performance with Bryant at the 57th Street Gallery in Oakland with The Bryant Bolling Quintet in "Love Will Find a Way," which was wonderful. The way the songs complemented the lyrical artistry of Zakiyyah's poetry was a fascinating journey from start to finish.

The band was as Bryant acknowledged many times masters of artistry as he both sang and played the piano, alternating with friend Mr. Coo. Other musicians were M.B. Hanif (recovering from a stroke six months ago) whom we were so happy to see playing strong and fiercely on alto and soprano saxophones. Michael Spencer, drums; Larry Douglass, trumpet and mallet kat; and Alexander Smith on upright bass, filled out the ensemble. There was also a famous percussionist on hand drums.

Again the streets were wet, in fact, one could barely get off the sidewalk without stepping in puddles but we braved all of this for this special performance. It was the first time, but certainly not the last for the Bolling couple who hit many high notes Saturday night. Perhaps not the Minnie Riperton high, but certainly in that altitude (smile)

They performed "Let the Rain Fall on Me," Bryant singing as Zakiyyah stepped in with her poem reflecting on a concert where she saw Phyllis Hyman, another superstar whose life was cut short, this time suicide, all too soon for many of us.

The way Bryant stepped in and out of song, both as an accompanist and a soloist, then conductor, was pretty spectacular. He sang the lyrics to songs we only knew as instrumentals unless that song was Pharoah Sanders with Leon Thomas, "The Creator Has a Master Plan" to which Zakiyyah's "Earth's Rebirth" was a great salute to the turtle goddess whose gracious step keeps us afloat.

I had to keep excusing myself from the table where I was seated and find an open space to dance, as the rhythm moved me onto the floor on more than one occasion. "Little Sunflower," one of those songs I knew from an Ahmad Jamal album cover in my friend, Kamau Seitu's apartment when he lived on Center Street in West Oakland, but I didn't recall the lyrics which were perfectly matched thematically with Zakiyyah's poem "Grandchildren Sonnets."

A few of my favorite duets was "Song for My Father" and "Pa Pa"; this was another song that I knew minus the lyrics. One could certainly see within the programming Bryant's educator hat come into play. As a Keeper of the Culture honoree (Friends of the Negro Spirituals) he certainly knows this material academically and in practice. This depth is also reflected in Zakiyyah's work, whether that is in her historic references in poems like "Brooklyn on My Mind" (to Bryant's "New York, New York"--another favorite) or the fun lament "The Sweet and Sour Bitter Heat of Love" to the blues song "Four."

Another favorite was the closing piece for the first half, "I Remember Grandma" to "I Love You for Sentimental Reasons." These songs were arranged especially for the wordsmith's performance with the band. I was really happy when Bryant lowered the music stand so we could see Zakiyyah. My only regret was that I left my camera at home when I dropped off my car and a friend picked me up to the show. I used her phone to get a group shot, but it's not quite the same thing (smile).

Bryant's vocal timing was just amazing to hear and watch as in his sexy bedroom baritone voice he hit all the notes where we remembered them as he kept pace with the phenomenal artists in the band. He was just so happy, dancing around the stage, gazing with love at his wife as the evening unfolded. If you missed this first --we hope of many such events, don't let a little rain keep you away next time.

The couple was on my radio show that Friday, February 7, which was also National Black AIDS Awareness Day. They performed two pieces. To listen visit:

Anthology Information
February 8 was a great day. Stay in touch, visit your local libraries and don't forget, first the Saturday next year, February 7, 2015, is the 25th Anniversary of An African American Celebration through Poetry at the West Oakland Library, 1801 Adeline Street, (510) 238-7352.

We plan to have an anthology published with a Best Of--Past and Present. If any poet who has participated would like to contribute please let us know. You can contact me directly at Poets can send up to ten pages. If the poet is deceased, he or she can still participate if his or her heirs wants to submit work on their behalf. Please include contact information and a brief bio with submission. Electronic documents are preferred in Microsoft Word or Google Drive. It is okay if the stories or poems have been previously published.

We are also looking for all photographers who have been taking photos and video over these 24 years. Please share the these archives with us for the 25th Anniversary Gala Event. Get in touch with Wanda Sabir and Mrs. Marygay Ducey, Branch Librarian at the West Oakland Branch Library.

We gave special thanks to Giovanna Capone, Library Assistant who made our flier this year and worked really hard to make the program a success (smile) and West Oakland Library staff who set the room up and then came back and helped with clean-up. We appreciate the branch librarian, Marygay Ducey's support and presence that day as well, especially scheduling staff so they could come over and enjoy the work for an hour each.  We also wanted to thank our long time donor Bilal Sabir's Delightful Foods, the No Cookie Cookie Bakery for 23 years of uninterrupted support and photographers TaSin Sabir and Hubert Collins.


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