Their Emancipation, for Juneteenth 2014

Their Emancipation, for Juneteenth 2014
June 19, 2014

When I moved to Texas in 1968,
I found that Texans had two* unique holidays:
The first was the Fat Stock Show and Rodeo.
On a given Friday in February,
Houston’s highways were closed to traffic
to make way for trail riders.
These were people who left their ranches
across the state, and traveled for up to two weeks,
in covered wagons, on old cattle-drive trails,
to Houston. On that day,
they flowed into the city and met at the Astrodome
to raise money for scholarships for ten days.

The other Texas holiday was Juneteenth.
In 1865, two months after the Civil War ended,
General Gordon Granger
and 2,000 armed US troops landed in Galveston
to enforce the two-and-a-half year old
Emancipation Proclamation.
You can visit Aston Villa, where he read the order.

But I didn’t have to go on pilgrimage
50 miles down I-45 to celebrate Juneteenth.
7 years after Galveston played the reluctant host
to General Granger and his friends,
Houston’s black community leaders pooled $800
and bought 10 acres of open land outside the city
as a place to celebrate Juneteenth every year.
“Emancipation Park”
was a short walk from my Houston apartment.

At the University of Houston,
I was personal assistant to the Director
of a new research center.
The collection of research laboratories
grew so quickly that the University decided
we needed a manager.
They hired a newly minted MBA for the job.

Summer at the center
was devoted to writing funding proposals.
In one of our first weekly staff meetings,
the new manager naively set several deadlines
for the end of the third week of June.
The staff members were polite.
They didn’t say anything.
But the new manager knew something was up.
We spoke in her office after the meeting.

“No one asked me for June 19th off,” she insisted.
“And they won’t,” I replied.
“But you should know when Juneteenth is,
just as you know
when Independence Day and Veterans’ Day are.
We’re in Texas. Juneteenth happened here.”
“But it’s not a real holiday,” she countered.
“Besides, this has nothing to do with you…”
“But it does,” I said. And I made two points:

When I was a little kid in school,
every month had a “construction paper” holiday:
First Day of Autumn, Halloween, Thanksgiving,
Washington and Lincoln’s Birthdays,
St. Valentine’s Day, Arbor Day, May Day,
Memorial Day, Flag Day;
and we’ve added others since then,
like Martin Luther King Day and Patriots Day.

From this, the little, 1950’s me was to learn that
what we are as humans, is all about memory.
Our humanity is about making something positive
from the good things and the bad things
that speckle our long history on this earth.

In the end, it is hardly relevant to our humanity
if the historical event actually happen to us:
if we were actually slaves in Egypt,
and have a right to celebrate Passover;
or if we were actually slaves
on cotton plantations in Civil War Era Texas,
and have a right to celebrate Juneteenth.
They are as much a part of our history
as they are anyone else’s;
so they are as much our holidays
as they are anyone else’s.

The Manager said,
“But it has nothing to do with you.
Why would you care?” And I told her:
“In terms of my humanity,
Who I Am is as black as he is white.
Their experience is our experience.
When they’re happy, we’re happy.
And their emancipation is as good as mine.”

In 1980, the Texas Legislature reluctantly
made Juneteenth a “partial staff holiday.”
Ten years later, the new manager of the center
experienced her first “partial staff holiday”—
except for her, the office was empty.
Here’s hoping she’s celebrating
her 25th Juneteenth this year—
with her entire staff.

* When I was delivering this at the Portsmouth Juneteenth Celebration, I realized that I omitted a third Texas holiday, San Jacinto Day, April 21. It commemorates the battle of San Jacinto between Texas and Mexico in 1836. Afterwards, Texas became an independent republic.

AMBUSHED BY POETRY: The Brick Project (update 3/8/14)

Ambushed by Poetry:
The Brick Project

(poems on YouTube get 2,720 hits)

For those of you who want a nostalgic look at Portsmouth when it’s not wrapped in the glories of winter, you might want to check out my two poetic tours of Portsmouth on Children’s Day and Market Square Day in 2012. The ever patient Mike Nelson did the recording. At each site, I stopped and read a different poem from the classic American and English canon. The most viewed? Johnson, Song to Celia (232), Herbert, Love Bade Me Welcome (203 hits), Lovelace, To Lucasta (199), Bennet, The Flag Goes By (196), Thaxter, The Sandpiper (181), Babcock, Be Strong (148), Suckling, Why So Pale and Wan (144).

  1. Babcock, Be Strong (2:22) 148
  2. Bates, America the Beautiful (3:49) 19
  3. Bennet, The Flag Goes By (2:55) 196
  4. Browning, Home Thoughts from Abroad (3:01) 52
  5. Bunner, The Heart of the Tree (3:22) 37
  6. Byron, So We’ll Go No More a Roving (2:36) 43
  7. Coleridge, Kubla Khan (5:11) 19
  8. Coleridge, Kubla Khan (5:15) 52
  9. Cook, How Did You Die? (3:14) 51
  10. Dickinson, A Narrow Fellow in the Grass (2:50) 25
  11. Donne, The Good Morrow (3:20) 91
  12. Dowson/Horace, I’ll Always Be Faithful to You in My Fashion/Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae (3:58) 90
  13. Emerson, Concord Hymn (3:09) 18
  14. Herbert, Love Bade Me Welcome (2:30) 203
  15. Herrick, Upon Julia’s Clothes (1:44) 60
  16. Holmes, God Save the Flag (2:54) 45
  17. Johnson, Song to Celia (2:14) 232
  18. Longfellow, Paul Revere’s Ride (8:27) 18
  19. Longfellow, The Children’s Hour (3:15) 4
  20. Longfellow, The Village Blacksmith (4:03) 31
  21. Lovelace, To Lucasta, Going to the Wars (1:55) 199
  22. Marlowe, The Passionate Shepherd to His Love (2:53) 54
  23. Marvell, To His Coy Mistress (4:02) 43
  24. McCrae, In Flanders Fields (2:52) 24
  25. Poe, To Helen (2:04) 65
  26. Raleigh, The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd (3:02) 65
  27. Riley, Knee Deep in June (5:45) 29
  28. Shakespeare, O Mistress Mine (2:00) 29
  29. Shakespeare, Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day? (2:58) 50
  30. Stanton, Keep a-Goin’ (2:37) 14
  31. Sucking, Why So Pale and Wan, Fair Lover? (2:01) 56
  32. Suckling, Why So Pale and Wan, Fond Lover? (2:16) 144
  33. Thaxter, The Sandpiper (3:12) 181
  34. Thayer, Casey at the Bat (6:27) 28
  35. van Dyke, America for Me (3:38) 85
  36. Waller, Go Lovely Rose (2:28) 83
  37. Whitman, O Captain! My Captain! (3:55) 22
  38. Whittier, Maud Muller (8:20) 24
  39. Whittier, The Barefoot Boy (6:45) 16
  40. Yeats, Leda and the Swan (2:02) 99


Contemporary Poets Read and Respond to Langston Hughes’s Contemporaries

Sponsored by The Seacoast African American Cultural Center

Thursday, April 24, 2014, 7-9 pm
Kittery Community Center, Community Room
120 Rogers Road, Kittery ME 03904

refreshments will be served

[please note the changes in venue and instructions to readers]

 The Seacoast African American Cultural Center has adopted the theme “The Harlem Renaissance” for this year’s activities. In recognition of National Poetry Month, they have asked me to curate a poetry reading on Thursday evening, April 24, 2014 and suggested that it focus on Harlem Renaissance poets other than Langston Hughes. I have also chosen to exempt three other famous poets from the era, Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, and Claude McKay. When these famous men went to a poetry reading, who did they hear?

I have invited contemporary poets to select a Harlem Renaissance poet to introduce with a short bio, to read a poem by that poet, and to write an original poem in response—a sort of poetic dialogue. The following, in chronological order, are the HARLEM RENAISSANCE POETS that have been selected by the following (contemporary poets):

(Tammi Truax, journalist, Herald)

(Pat Frisella, immediate past president of the Poetry Society of New Hampshire)

(Alison Harville, Business Systems Analyst, Liberty Mutual)

(Royaline Edwards, Author, Playwright, and Educator, Retired)

FENTON JOHNSON ((1888-1958)
(Bruce Pingree, Manager, The Press Room; Heart of Portsmouth Award 2013)

STERLING BROWN (1890-1960)
(James Rioux, Lecturer in English, University of New Hampshire Durham)

(Jessica Purdy, Adjunct Professor, Southern New Hampshire University)

JEAN TOOMER (1894-1967)
(Mark DeCarteret, 7th Portsmouth Poet Laureate)

(Maren Tirabassi, 3rd Portsmouth Poet Laureate, Pastor, Union Congregational Church Madbury)

ARNA BONTEMPS (1902-1973)
(Gordon Lang, 2011 New England Association of Teachers of English, Poet of the Year; teacher, English and Journalism, Kingswood High School Wolfeboro)

(John Perrault, 4th Portsmouth Poet Laureate, lawyer and balladeer)

HELENA JOHNSON (1907-1995)
(Kathleen Knox, student of S Stephanie, New Hampshire Institute of Art Manchester)

MAE COWDERY (1909-1953)
(S Stephanie, teacher and mentor, New Hampshire Institute of Art Manchester and Peterborough)

I am very excited by the array of poets who have responded to my invitation, and by the array of poets they’ve chosen to represent at the event. When the evening is over, you’ll have no doubt about the rich poetic community Hughes, Cullen, Johnson and McKay thrived in. And you may have discovered a new favorite poet from the period as well.