“Next up to the mic…”
A voice over the PA system announced to the crowd anxiously awaiting the next poet in the Open Mic lineup. Langston sat in the back, remembering what his first time felt like.
“Next up to the mic is a young man who goes by the name of Langston. You know how we do it when it’s a first time, folk.” At these words a choir of voices offered up praises in the form of these words: “Virgins always tight!” Langston nervously approached the microphone with his notebook in hand that functioned as his security blanket, took a deep breath and stepped up to the microphone. He purposefully avoided the crowd and the faces that he knew were looking at him. They were anxiously awaiting his words. He opened his notebook. While flipping through it, he had an aside as he scanned his work in the dimly lit room: Maybe Freedom, should I do something else? Nothing else feels right. Freedom, it is. Back with the crowd, Langston took a deep breath and tried not to see their anxious faces filled with curiosity. He addressed them as he finished flipping in his notebook to the right page.
“This one I just wrote in my seat is called Freedom, I hope y’all like it.”
“Freedom, they tell me, ain’t nothing like it
Freedom, I heard, is free
Blood of my ancestors disagrees
I can still see their mangled bodies hanging from the trees
Tell me, what is Freedom to me, or the 4th of July to a Slave?
Tell me what it means to walk down my own street unafraid
Tell me what it means not to have to watch every word I say
Every move I make when speaking to the cops
Unless they feel they provoked to leave my body on the block
Hours at a time like a warning sign
They left our bodies displayed, here hangs a slave
They called us Nigger, assigned us less worth than dogs
Raped our great-great grandmothers under the Sycamore tree
And they wonder why I wonder when I will be free
When do our three fifths souls become worth as much as theirs?
When is media propaganda to defame dead Black men going to stop?
When we get gunned down, when are we going to be free to be flawed?
When do we receive our Freedom?
Freedom they tell me, I sure would like some
Langston’s sermon concluded and the congregation erupted with calls of “Spit Poet!” “Amen!” “Preach!” and “Say that!” in conjunction with loud claps, finger snaps and about half the room on its feet. The chill of formerly unspoken truths lingered in the air like cigarette smoke in a Blues Hall or Juke Joint as the host came back to the microphone.
“Give this young brotha’ a hand y’all. What power, what conviction, what reality! Langston really got something special.” The crowd responded to this latest praise of his oratory with more claps and a few scattered yes’s and Amens before they settled down.
In the three years since his first performance, Langston abandoned his notebook and shirked pens in favor of word processors and scattered Facebook notes. He picked up the habit of revisiting his old stomping grounds from time to time, the place where he had cut his teeth as a beginner in the art and expression of poetry. To Langston it was an adrenaline shot to the arm. Hearing new and fresh poetry helped him compose in the wee hours of the night. He sat in the back awaiting the newest poet to take that same stage he had once taken, wondering if the new blood would take a shine to the bright lights. As he and the crowd finished the chant of “Virgins always tight!” a slender and unassuming woman came up to the mic. The host introduced her as Nina and she thought about which poem she would recite.
“I wasn’t even going to do anything tonight, but after my friend told me about something that happened to her last week, I couldn’t live with myself if I just sat there. Check it out.”
“She went to a party, a party, you’re supposed to enjoy it right?
Caught up in the pulse pounding, the thumps and the lights
She never noticed something about her drink wasn’t right
The color had changed, but the room was dark
Soon her lights would be dark as well
And she would wake in some stranger’s bed
With this pounding in her head
And this aching between her legs
Struggling to piece it together, she filed a report
But couldn’t remember faces, she was now a victim
But no justice on her behalf, cause the first thing they asked was what she was wearing
As though party clothes and freakum dresses made her less worth protection
As though it was her fault she got raped
Abandoned, left for dead by this ‘justice system’
I guess the mule of the world is still the Black woman”
Nina’s poem concluded to loud clapping, and feminine voices yelling their approval while some of the men shifted and sat uncomfortably in their seats, feeling exposed. Langston was on his feet, particularly in awe of the way she used that last line to tie up the principal concerns running through Nina’s piece while also giving a slight nod to one of his favorite authors. This made up his mind. He was going to have to talk to her after the event was over, to pick her brain and maybe even get her number. In his mind, anyone who is aware enough to paraphrase and quote Zora Neale Hurston’s words in a work about the forgotten victim is someone who he could learn a thing or two from. At the conclusion of the Poet’s Lounge, Langston located Nina.
“Nina?” Langston called as he approached the demure young lady, dressed in a flowing earth toned skirt, white long sleeved top, and tropical parrot colored hair wrap.
Langston shot her a puzzled look. “You know me?”
“Yes. You’re something of a local legend around these parts.” Her voice was like something men dreamed of hearing, audio honey; as if the rainforest and the sweetener derived from nature’s bees had a lovechild. Her voice was the beauty in nature, given the ability to utter words. Langston wondered where she got the power he had just heard her speak with upon the stage compared with the milk and honey he was presently hearing.
“I was really impressed with your poem tonight, I loved how you used Hurston to drive home a great point. You’re amazing.”
“Amazing? I’m just a girl from Florida, telling the stories. You’re the amazing one with all your books.”
“So you’ve read my books?” Langston asked, barely able to conceal his joy at hearing that she may have been interested in his work.
“Sure, I have all three of your poetry books. I think you’re pretty brilliant myself.”
“So would you mind maybe exchanging information, phone numbers, e-mails?”
“Not at all, I think we could teach each other a lot; even maybe redefine each other’s notions of freedom.”
Langston heard those words and was relieved Nina wanted to collaborate and build with him, even if it was platonic.
A month later, Langston sent Nina a few texts with ideas or words that he wanted her perspective on. It had become their way of gathering understanding on various topics, a game of word association. Langston sent “Harlem” “Dreams” and Countee Cullen” and waited on the familiar buzz and picture of Nina to pop up when she texted him a reply.
“Harlem. Freedom of expression. Dreams. Being able to stand on a stage and inspire little girls to reach for somewhere beyond where they are. C.C. Overrated.”
Langston read Nina’s texts and quickly composed an impromptu invitation for deeper discussion of these ideas and people. “Meet me in the library over coffee for discussion? Is tonight good?” Langston read over his composition before he sent it; he was a notorious mis-speller of words, even with auto-correct and he wanted to be sure it was spelled right. Nina always chided him in fun jest: “What kind of writer can’t spell? Am I supposed to take you serious?” They would always laugh about it, but Langston hated being reminded of his flaws.
The two agreed to meet at W.E.B. DuBois Library at the middle table of the coffee shop. The shop had become a popular meeting place amongst the student populace for academic and, on occasion, philosophical conversations. It sometimes hosted impromptu debate sessions between students who had met strictly for discussion and passerbyers who overheard and could not help but offer an opinion. The library itself was a old, but maintained well so the students did not smell the age of the walls or the books on the shelves. On the night Langston and Nina were meeting, it was less crowded than usual. This lent to a freer and more vulnerable expression without the worry of who would overhear their conversation and chime in.
“So you think Countee is overrated do you?”
“Yeah, don’t get me wrong; he was an eloquent writer, but he didn’t keep his message plain, often hiding behind his flowery words and structure the subject matter which I feel is best expressed explicitly; without pretense or pretty coverings. I read ‘Shroud of Color’ and I found it lost its way somewhere between the third and fifth stanzas. It had great potential in the beginning for exposing religious hypocrisy, but I felt like it ran away from a real criticism of the culture that created that mindset.”
Langston sat and thought for a second as he processed Nina’s criticism of one of his favorite poets and also thought of Cullen’s works he had read.
“Hmm. That is a respectable reason to disagree, but I don’t think he covered up any subject matter because it was not explicitly stated, Nina.
“Don’t lecture me, Langston. I know my stuff.” Nina interjected, before Langston continued and attempted to clean up his perception.
“I’m just saying you also have to take into account his primary audience. He couldn’t just come out aggressively and blame his audience for the issues which he and other African-Americans of the day faced. It took a certain amount of finesse to engage them to think, while not handicapping his art and expression.”
Nina thought a bit before offering a response: “That’s correct.” Nina spoke these two words in a tone that indicated her disagreement, but she would rather not spend an hour arguing about artistic license and cultural responsibility.
“So tell me, what is your idea of freedom?” she asked.
“Well, before I can answer that” he responded, “I kind of have to say this. When I’m not writing or on stage, I feel like I’m in a cage and the only way out is to express what’s bottled in my soul. You ever felt like that? My idea of freedom is the feeling I get on stage, the crowd bending at my words, snapping and clapping where I express the innermost thoughts they never knew they had. I feel freest as a conduit for their freedom.”
She took a minute to think over his answer and then she responded.
“To answer your question, yes. I know that cage well. Only it exists the entire time I’m on stage performing and while I am off it. I am extremely conscious of the fact because I am a woman, because I wear this skin, because I am a certain age, that I am expected to behave in manners that may not agree with my disposition. I’m a free spirit, but these roles that society imposes leaves me feeling constricted and wanting something more, something deeper. Something I can truly identify with. Writing helps me cope with these pressures and it also helps me believe everything I write, everything that I speak, is bigger than me. I think about the young girls who are probably going to follow in my footsteps someday, and I hope I can leave the world a little easier for them to follow my path.”
“You know,” he said. “That’s one of the things that made the Renaissance so beautiful. Writers, culture shapers, thinking people’s artists, could get together and collaborate on ideas, work on art together with the common purpose of redefining perception of not only Black art, but art in general. I have been tinkering with an idea in my head, but I’m not sure what I want to do with it yet or if I even want to pursue it. It kind of scares me a little.”
“Well, anything that scares you must be pretty big. Let’s hear it. Or you could just send me your ideas via e-mail once you have them worked out,” she retorted.
“That sounds wonderful. I have a bit of a working title based on our conversation. ‘The Troubles of a Freedom Writer’.”
Nina casually looked at him as she replied. “I really like the sound of that, and the strong imagery that it evokes both of the Freedom Riders and the collective troubles of artists who strive for intellectual, social and spiritual freedom. I think it would pay good homage to the Harlem Renaissance. Keep me posted, and don’t forget to use your spellcheck. You know how you send me things with that red ink underneath.”
Nina had an infectious laugh and gorgeous smile, the kinds of things that only fed her earthy and easy charm. Langston could not resist a hearty chuckle even as he was irritated.
“You are something else, woman.”
Nina shot him a lethal glare at the conclusion of that sentence, and Langston knew he had incurred a taste of her wrath.
“Hey, I gotta get to working on my new art so I have to run, but we have got to do this again. There is great freedom in these types of conversations. Two artists discussing art under the roof that bears one of the architects of the Harlem Renaissance’s name and also a layer of the foundation of the freedom that we now possess in our art. Until next time, Freedom Writer.”
Langston walked into the library’s computer lab, opened his word processor and began to type the words “Freedom Writer” onto his blank template. That’s all he wrote, “Freedom Writer.” Langston paused to reflect on the extent of these words and what they truly meant. As he did, he remembered the boldness of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. as they fought for equality, justice, and the future of America in the face of certain death. Yet, they never stopped writing speeches and words that provoked the consciousnesses of White and Black America; they were willing to die over it.
Langston began to type.
“Freedom is an ideal for which we are prepared to face death. Death for the artist is never as black and white as death for the human body. For the artist, death is censure, death is being called an unreliable source of truth; and we would collectively rather be killed than to be told that our art is not worth hearing, that our art must be silenced because the truth is too great a burden on the souls and minds of those who hear our words. We must be heard, we must express ourselves. Freedom depends on the words we write. Welcome to the New Harlem, welcome to the expressions of the Freedom Writers.”
Nina arrived home at 10:05 PM, and switched on her television after she locked the door of her apartment. She usually tried to avoid watching the news as she felt it often capitalized on people’s fears and pushed its own agenda instead of just simply telling the world what happened, but tonight, for some reason, she decided to turn it on. The news reporter opened with a breaking news segment about the latest incident of police killing unarmed citizens. This one was in Florida and her hometown, and that immediately grabbed her attention.
A young woman has been shot by the police tonight in Eatonville, Florida. Allegedly after she was pulled over for a routine traffic stop, witnesses claim the arresting officer had her kneel on the ground and shot her in the left temple. The official police report says that she had a gun, but she was handcuffed at the time she allegedly killed herself. Details are still coming in, but this only adds to the current national outrage centered on police officers who overstep their boundaries.
Nina heard those words and was again confronted with the question of freedom. When will these senseless murders stop? Will we ever be free? I have got to write about this soon. Nina changed the channel to VH1 Soul, which was airing a series of Lauryn Hill videos. Lauryn was something of an icon to Nina, she even had a “Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” poster and the vinyl record hanging on her back bedroom wall above her bed. It served as a reminder that her beauty was not some special case, that her dark skin, full lips, and dreadlocked hair was not something to be ashamed of but loved and embraced. She wished everybody felt the same about it as she did, as she was sure Langston did. Sometimes she would notice the way he looked at her while she had her coils of hair hidden under wraps, as though he longed to touch it but dared not ask. He knew the rules of a Sista’s hair. As she listened to Lauryn Hill’s verse on Forgive Them Father, Nina made sure to take note of these lines as they resonated with her concerning the news report she had just heard:
To survive is to stay alive in the face of opposition
Even when they comin’ gunnin’
I stand position
L’s known the mission since conception
Let’s free the people from deception
If you looking for the answers
Then you gotta ask the questions
Nina repeated the last two lines first in her head then on a sheet of paper. She wrote. “If you looking for answers, you gotta ask the questions. Refrain. Underscore as important. Ask important questions of worth, value, and humanity. Femininity, beauty, and masculinity. Socially constructed prisons. Make people question accepted ideas about some or all of these values. Tie it to current events which resonate with me and my experiences as a Black woman in America. The South. The North. The World.” She wanted to ensure that this was brought forth in such a way as to provoke thoughts and discussion of what it means to be free in a society, a world that demands subjugation.
Red, white and blue lights filled his rearview as he drove down the dark stretch of road. Langston remembered the instructions his mother gave him before he left home for college about how to deal with the police. He could still hear her voice in his head as he slowly pulled his car over to the side of the road: Always keep your hands visible. Don’t say anything but “Yes Sir” and “No Sir.” Breathe slowly. Do what they ask you. Do not resist. Obey their instructions. Don’t be threatening. Don’t reach for anything unless they give you permission. Langston rolled down his window, took a deep breath filled with nervous air and put his hands on the steering wheel as he awaited the police officer’s arrival next to his window.
“You know why I stopped you?” The officer demanded more than asked in a thick southern drawl as he put the beams of his flashlight directly into Langston’s eyes. I’m Black on the wrong side of town in a car I look like I can’t afford Langston thought, but dared not vocalize for fear that he might justify a shooting.
“I don’t know, Sir. I don’t think I was speeding.”
“You were going sixty-five in a thirty-five. That’s reason for a ticket and an arrest alone. Step out, I want to search your car.”
“Liar. I haven’t driven over forty miles an hour. I know this is a set-up. I also know I shouldn’t resist his orders. Got dammit.” he thought to himself. Langston obeyed the officer’s commands, despite his reservations, and braced his hands on the top of his car, prepared for a quick pat-down when he felt a sharp pain in his side.
The officer hit Langston in the ribs with his nightstick as he asked him: “Why did you lie to me about the narcotics?” Unbeknownst to Langston, the officer had planted half a gram of marijuana in his back pocket as he patted him down.
Langston was completely unprepared for the onslaught of seemingly relentless blows to his body and back as he curled up into a fetal position to ward off some of the vicious blows at the hands of the Police. The officer then picked Langston up off the ground with his nightstick and choked him as Langston fought for air that felt like a Catch 22. With every breath he struggled for, the more pain he felt in his ribcage, every short breath cost Langston to the point where he wondered if it was worth it to even try and breathe. All of a sudden, the officer dropped Langston to the cold, hard asphalt and got back into his patrol car. He retreated back into the darkness from whence he had seemingly come, leaving Langston gasping for air. Coughing, wheezing and trying to collect himself, Langston braced himself against the car and slowly struggled to open his door and get in. He leaned up against his door, using it for support as every breath drawn was now a breath he wished he could take back. Gripping the handle with a grimace plastered across his face, wincing to barely open the door, Langston fell in his car in a heap. Struggling to swing his legs back into the car, it pained him to move them tremendously just as did the pain of knowing that being an upstanding member of the community did not shield him from police brutality. Some of them still looked at him and saw a slave; that much was apparent. As Langston drove away, there was only one thought that occupied his mind.
“Freedom they tell me, ain’t nothing like it. Freedom, I sure would like some…”