In light of Colin Kaepernick's recent protest, choosing to sit during the national anthem, I wanted to bring out this old piece I shared as a guest speaker for the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop in spring of 2014. In it I posit that the act of sitting down, for black people in America, is nothing short of revolutionary. It has been since (and well before) Rosa Parks, and continues to be in light of circumstances. For those of you that don't know, this happened also in the 1970's NBA with Rucker Park legend Charlie Yelverton.
As Black people, we have been fed the lie that the Black body is an “Always Able” body, with no time to rest, feel safe, or breathe easy. Though there isn’t one of us who can live up to these unrealistic expectation whiteness forces upon us, we still belittle and shame our kin. Black People, it is time to reclaim our Black bodies as our own.
We don’t have to “do” anything or “go” anywhere to be revolutionary and worthy of love, family, and community. Our mere existence as people on the margins of society—as Black, Queer/Trans, Chronic, Poor, and all the other labels we use to define our unique intersections—IS revolutionary.
Lynx Sainte-Marie, "Our R/evolutionary Bodies: On Being Black and Sick"
My relationship to basketball and the concept of the height advantage is fraught. I guess. Last I checked I was 5’4”. That’s what my driver’s license says. Langston Hughes was purportedly 5’4”. Prince is supposedly 5’2”. Muggsy Bogues; 5’3”. Freddie Patek; 5’4”. So I count myself in excellent company. I learned with time that height does not define our ability to be great or accomplished. Even still, I knew the great machine of American basketball would never be available to me. I gave up on basketball at the tail end of the Jordan era when it was apparent I wasn’t getting any taller. In any case I recently had the good fortune of meeting a beautiful lady named C.B. Yelverton. She told me a remarkable story about her personal hero and brother, Charles “Charlie” Yelverton. She so clearly admired and reveled in the story of her brother that I was moved. The story, according to C.B.: Charlie was a basketball star at Fordham in the late sixties. Some of you may remember, or know the history. He was drafted by the Portland Trailblazers in 1971 and signed to a three year contract. This was in a time when most NBA teams wouldn’t allow any more than two black ballplayers on the court at a time. So Charlie, with his teammates, devised a plan to peacefully protest by sitting while everyone else stood for the national anthem. When the moment of truth came, Charlie’s teammates did not follow through, effectively leaving Charlie alone in his protest. Charlie was ultimately cut from the team (although he was paid, per contract stipulations, for the next two years) and he moved to Italy where he continued to play basketball. There he became a kind of local legend, beloved by Italian basketball fans, and jazz musicians alike. (Charlie is an adept saxophone player) Charlie is the hero you’ve likely never heard of. His story is largely forgotten by most Americans born after the Reagan era. And it all, in my mind, sits squarely on his decision to sit down.
So this essay is on Sitzfleisch; or, the sometimes revolutionary and always controversial choice to sit down. Sitzfleisch is a lovely German word which signifies “sitting endurance”. Sitzfleisch implies staying power, fixity, focus. According to the wiktionary: the ability to endure or carry on with an activity; [an] ability to sit still. But before we further discuss Sitzfleisch let’s talk shop.
The circumstances of our induction into the so-called industry of writing will never be more than personal testimony. Which is to say, there is no formula. An innocuous example: J.K. Rowling. Perhaps you know the story of J.K. Rowling writing fragments of what would become the Harry Potter series (one of my personal favorites) on the backs of napkins in cafes because she was too poor and destitute to do otherwise. There are several rags to riches stories like Ms. Rowling’s chronicling a miraculous ascent from poverty to wealth all because of an exceptional imagination.
In my experience there’s no accounting for who and what is published. I think of Kafka—and the fact of his posthumous success. The time and energy spent thinking about the publishing industry can be used more efficiently elsewhere. Discussion of the industry invariably leads to formulaic conventions of craft, marketability, statistics—all of which reflect an economic reality which is neither real, nor fair. Business Insider reports Creative Writing as #2 on a list of the 10 most competitive jobs in America. Poorly written works are published monthly and now daily with the advent of blogging and e-publishing—two very useful tools in the democratization of the written word, but which still exist on the fringe of the so-called industry.
The question is: Who and what gauges the quality of our written works? What distinguishes a poorly written novel from a well written novel or essay or collection of poems? We as writers should be concerned not with the industry, not with editors or professors or the academy. To be concerned with a single person or notion of agency delimits the significance of being a writer. Being a writer, asserts the ontological condition of freedom. You are bound to your own work and your work comes unbounded from you, and the rest of your energy is a negotiation with the perfection of the process by which you mediate your work and its production. You are free and as a writer you must accept this.
Easier said than done.
Intention is crucial, and often dictates the forms and media which adequately shape our expression. But artistic intention and integrity are frequently in conflict with market demand. What you intend, even if possessed of a singular quality, may not be de rigueur in the various economies which perpetuate the industry.
I was asked once by my best friend if I believed poetry could heal. Quickly and cynically I responded: no—thinking of cancer and what general disease and the march of time can do to a body. But after much thought and revision I realized definitively that, no, poetry cannot heal, in the strict sense of the word. It does not cure disease or stitch open wounds. What poetry does is mend. It mends the chasm between what is beyond the ken of human understanding and what is meaningful, relatable, graspable. Think of Audre Lorde’s Cancer Journals. Poetry is the primary agent for the development of causal relationships and psychic continuity. In this respect, what we do as poets and writers is essential. We hold the fabric of reality in our palms—and this is not hyperbole—this is a fact of what we do and that is why, for good or bad, we do it. I believe Nas when he raps “I’m deep by sound alone/ caved inside a thousand miles from home”
So I'm unconcerned with publication (or a lack thereof) insofar as I understand and believe that what is vital, as a rule, cannot be ignored. If the work is vital it is necessary to the well-being of the people.
So again, who and what gauges the quality of our written works?
The standards by which we write are gauged against the high water mark of our ancestors, our predecessors and contemporaries. Not only do we contend with the writers and poets, but the musicians, the painters and sculptors. We assimilate the full breadth of life and art that precedes us and walks with us. Why? Because they do it for We as James Baldwin defines We in “The Price of the Ticket”, “We: my family, the living and the dead, and the children coming along behind us.” This is what sits at the center of every mytho-poetic tradition, every literary tradition.
One practical means of gauging the importance and significance of your work is reading to your family. They know you and put up with your shit. If they’re amenable, read to them. And if they feel it in their hearts, in their minds—when your writing can speak to those people closest to you, then you’re on the right track.
So the task of the writer, the divine calling so to speak, is a sustained meditation on and wrestling with the angel of history. It is a metaphysical, supertemporal discourse with the world as constructed. This Jacobean agon requires time and study. This is study in the sense delineated by Fred Moten’s in his coauthored marvel of a book “The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study” Jack Halberstam in his introduction provides a concise definition of study: “…a mode of thinking with others separate from the thinking that the institution requires of you…”
But the student has a habit, a bad habit. She studies. She studies but she does not learn. If she learned they could measure her progress, establish her attributes, give her credit. But the student keeps studying, keeps planning to study, keeps running to study, keeps studying a plan, keeps elaborating a debt. The student does not intend to pay. (62)
This is the kind of insolvency one overtakes as a writer. And as one just fired from yet another minimum wage job, often underpaid or unpaid for the labor of my thought and writing, I understand how very painful and inconvenient it can be to write. When to sit while those around you implore demonstratively and in silent complicity that you stand, sitting down with intent will always be risky, revolutionary, provocative, even dangerous.
I have to question (without dismissing) the old adage that “we must work twice as hard to get half of what they got”. The expression is a painful and not entirely untrue vestige of Brown v. Board of Education—but it also implies that what we strive for is exactly what the hegemony will not allow us to have. To live our lives in pursuit of this kind of affirmation is already being called away from the vocation to sit out and critically observe. The agon of your writing should never overwhelm the significance of your well-being—which the world at large is constantly trying to take from you.
Despite the realities of being a writer, you will continue to compose your work and submit it for publication. Why? Because this is your calling. You may send your 3-5 poems weekly, varying the selection in accordance with the publication you’re submitting to. You may send your most recent short story out to ten different journals, expecting to hear a positive word. You may be rejected every time and forced to return to square one, complaining the whole way and feeling like you’ve wasted your time. But you return to the agon of your craft, because it is your own thing. As you submit your work, do not also submit your sense of purpose, direction, and integrity.
Our respective journeys, if we allow them to, unfold organically. Respect yourself. Know and respect your boundaries and limitations, so that perhaps you may challenge and exceed them. Be honest and unrestrained—precisely because you are free. Know and respect opportunity when it is presented to you—because opportunity is a blessing. As well, recognize that no opportunity promises to result in the fulfillment of your dream. Each opportunity you get as a writer is a piece in a puzzle which is intimately tied to the fulfillment of your being.
I can only imagine the nervous energy that rushed through Charlie Yelverton before committing to sit out of the national anthem, certainly aware that his protest risked his livelihood in the NBA. But Charlie must have also been attuned to the fact that he had righteousness on his side, that he could essentially do no wrong because he was doing the right thing. Perhaps he lost his job. Perhaps he was shamed from the association. But years later we can all recognize him as a hero, a champion. To take a stand against injustice he had to sit down.
This is the final and most important part of writing toward publication. Toni Morrison’s injunction: If there's a book you really want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.
Do it because it is imperative. Do it because you know your own righteousness. Do it because you believe the world needs it. Otherwise what are you doing?