Excerpts from Oronde Ash's book James, Mos Def, my brotha & Me: Reflections on The Fire This Time
My brother is fourteen now, about the age when you and I began interacting on life with the best and worst of our thoughts. When I go home I see in his eyes, the challenge of becoming human in this new century. I was fortunate to have you as a comrade then and read in your works, especially The Fire Next Time, an excerpt to the story my inner actions were writing. Your Fire lit me and shined a path on how to fight whatever fever or chill will exist in my time…
… I cannot imagine my whole Avenue conspiring to hold me back. I have never experienced that force. In the language of your father, I would have been destroying myself for believing in and setting out to prove my human capital at twelve, thirteen or fourteen. Now, my brother is the same age and facing the same choice. He and I were both discovered to be above-average students around the fifth grade. Basically, we are both very good at standardized tests, observing and finding patterns in texts, equations and human thought. Like you, he is not just an above average student, he has the potential to be one of the relatively few, conscious human beings. No one has had cause to hold him back, James, said, “No” to his dreams, nor had cause to make him feel less than worthy in any way. He's never --like most black boys, thankfully-- heard the word nigger uttered with contempt from some unconscious soul whose family knows no better than to teach trash to their progeny. You've heard the word. I've been pierce by it.
i was tripped by him and fell in the mud
he blotted the sun that day and
from my stained seat i heard NIGGER!
i was 4'8"
he was no bigger
Nigger? me? simply 'cause i borrowed the ball during the give and take of the game we had both agreed to play
Nigger? me? for trying harder, running faster, playing smarter than him that was all for Nigger
what assured loser he was
as the final whistle blew that Sunday
the Spirit of '76 won I walked off the pitch, proud, on high my yellow jersey muddy and black his uniform was still clean no mud,
no black just pure white walking off the pitch
me, a winner
he, sure looking like a NIGGER!
… Your genius is that you got over life's darkness and turned the light on whiteness, showing how bland, soulless and hypocritical their society was, how little many of them knew about it and even less about their place in it. You never talked with bitterness or hatred. I always felt you spoke the clear and present facts of the time, with clarity, honesty and truth. And it wasn't just you. I've read Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Eldridge Cleaver, Alex Haley, W.E.B. DuBois, Frederick Douglas, William Wells Brown, Leslie Alexander Lacy, Ezekiel Mphelele, Mark Mathabane, Chinua Achebe, Nathan McCall, Michael Eric Dyson, Clarence Page, James Weldon Johnson, George Jackson, even Ice-T. I love to read autobiographies or nonfiction and prose written by black men. Their black boy stories remain the same over time. I used to think that was boring until I realized it simply meant America had not changed in its treatment of the black boy. In my favorite biographies, whiteness was defined against blackness --as soft can only be defined against hard, weak against strong. The black boy believed what lies the white world told him, questioned those lies somewhere around adolescence then set out to create his own truths. He became himself in the presence of an existing --a necessary-- racial discourse. There had to be meaningful discourse and the opportunity to act on it. There had to be family, friends, communities, a nation talking about race, nuclear war, peace, sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, poverty, class struggle; talking about something. He needed that force to shape him, to war against...
Folks need to attempt dialogue again, engage in meaningful societal discourse. And I don't mean just black and white. The dialogue is especially necessary between black and black, white and white, American and American because this country still is what it is. Black folks and other conscious Americans need to ask each other if we still think about race --still see a need for a better societal design? What, if anything, do we want to do about it? How do we start our mission? Who will be the leaders, if any? Who will be the niggerati, intellects, the foot soldiers? How will we recruit members? What will be the criteria for membership in the new movement? And most important of all, is the whole damn thing necessary?...
… I have a new ritual. I listen to a Mos Def CD every day. He un-raps the best of my current black spirit in rhythm and rhyme. I'm feeling liberated these days and want to act on freedom's instincts and reach people the way Mos‟ lyrics and his buzz have infected me. His story and mine have similarities. Two black boys from Brooklyn, roughly the same age, moved by thought, inspired to share what gifts God has blessed them with. Who knows, maybe he and I were on the same train one day, avoiding each other‟s gaze, deep in contemplation about our black boy realities. He could have been the cat free-styling near MSG that afternoon when I stopped, 'cause I was moved by words. James, if you were alive today and got to be twenty-seven again, you would be Mos Def. His truth and honesty remind me there are still folks out there who are willing and able to think through our mess and assess all that the process can lead to. Like Mos, we are all MCs, teachers, cultivators of the earth. I try to get my brother to listen to Mos, Pharoahe Monch, Talib Kweli, The Roots, Common, Dead Prez, Outkast, Goodie Mob, Lauryn Hill or Spook's single, “The Things I've Seen”. These artists seem to be the new leaders keeping alive our struggle for black liberation. My brother may be too young to see the struggle. He listens to Lil Wayne and the Hot Boys, relates more to the Bling! Bling! than to Black Thought. I don't have a problem with a boy working hard, sacrificing, learning the game and making the thousands Lil Wayne has. More power to Cash Money. I bounce to their sound. I like anything that diversifies the black experience in America. I like the fact that more music puts no limits on what my brother will be moved by. I bounce to that whoadee thang in Juvenile's Ha --one of the most conscious singles to hit it big in the gloss and booty-shaking MTV defines as rap music. The song is our living, black boy consciousness, laughing at the desolation of our impoverished communities because there is little to do but find some joy in the inner-city wastelands. I never knew whoadees in N'Orlans felt my Brooklyn black boy thang. Now I know and I'm better for choosing to hear it.
...There are goggles of gigabytes of interesting information out there for my brother to feed on. He's supposed to eat it all up right now. He has been fed so much information that it is only a matter of time before their emerges a set of people from his generation who will question what they have eaten and try to understand what it is supposed to do to them. That's why the Barons and their Government Infotainment Complex have to work ten times as hard to keep my brother busy, sitting on his backside. But there have been folks on the backside of progress that saw what was really going on. I want to be one of those people. I pray to God my brother sees those people, joins up with them and does something to become the great men and women history is preparing his generation to be. If he keeps vibin‟ to the wei in the Wu, I know there's hope alive in him. On some level, he vibes because he connects to something powerfully black, unmistakably human. The fact that he listens, means he can still hear his humanity calling through the buzz, buzz, buzzing of our time. And if he hears only the 5% he's supposed to, that would be more than enough…