Thursday, May 28, 2015

You need Death in your life...

If you haven't heard the proto-punk band Death from Detroit, you need to remedy that. If you haven't seen the excellent documentary about these brothers, A Band Called Death, you also need to handle that as well (it's on Netflix). 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Naming Innocence

Written before the birth of my son Benjamin:

I am the father of a yet unborn son. I see him squirming around in his mama's stomach, and I imagine that he's ready to be in this world. But there is this business of birth and this business of a name. The birth, I'm pretty much an awed witness of, but the name I can help out with. As a man, I know how powerful your name can be to the people you encounter, and how you encounter yourself. 

My name, Abdel, is actually a bit strange. Not in the way that I'm usually prepared for it to be strange, like when I met people in Minnesota and they thought my name was Ed or Bill. Confused white folks thinking I'm strange, Nothing really new there. Or strange like when I served in an Americorps program in the Baltimore public schools, and I introduced myself to a school volunteer, a black woman who could have been my grandma, and she spit my name back at me like a piece of rotten cheese. What is that, foreign? she said. (Luckily, I wasn't a girl because I've been told I would have been Assata and ended up on terrorist no-fly list.) I didn't know how strange it was until I started writing news stories about the Somali community in Minneapolis. My name actually made people smile, for maybe the first time. Abdelshakur. Abdelshakur. Abdelshakur. One day somebody took me aside and let me know how rare (strange) it was to have just Abdel as a first name. "Abdel" is something like servant, or slave, of God, and the second part would be an attribute of God. Shakur means the most thankful. My name says I am the servant of a thankful God. Sounds about right. I had kind of a fuzzy perception about the meaning of the name, but connecting with these Africans made me feel more at home in Minnesota, of all places. My parents didn't know it, but they had given me an entry point into a whole other culture. A whole other experience. A name does that.

So, naming a son is no small task. It bears a heavier burden than naming a girl. The possibilities are much greater. You can name her Amy or Diamond or Tulip or Faith or Apple or Blue Ivy. Guys are Greg or Paul or Marcus or James. If you get too creative with Black male names, you're likely going to cost them a job (or worse) somewhere down the line. Outside of professional football, I can't think of too many career fields where having a name like Barkevious Mingo wouldn't hold you back.

And that's the real issue. With this son, we want to give him entree into a world beyond just what goes on in our neighborhood or city or nation. But it's far too easy for black boys to lose their innocence. Or at least to have their innocence unrecognized and then taken from them. And really, what else do we have if we do not have our innocence? What name do you give a Black boy to give him an entry point into a world that recognizes him for who he is, not what history says he should become?

Really, I don't know that I have an answer. We decided on Benjamin, but if you need a nickname, just call him Loved.

Sunday, May 10, 2015


This has been playing in my class the past two weeks. Not sure why.

Saturday, May 2, 2015


I wrote a story about a writer with literary roaches. It got published in Santa Clara Review, which was great, but the magazine's website was in the middle of an update, which meant that the online edition wasn't available at the time. And I thought it would never be available, which sucked. But I found a PDF of the issue the other day and I still liked it, so here it go.

By Abdel Shakur
It took two weeks in his new apartment for G to realize he had roommates. One morning he looked up from a plate of eggs and saw a roach walking on his ceiling. He dropped his fork, took off his shoe, and raised it to strike. The roach stopped. G missing wildly with the shoe and a chunk of plaster dropped into his food. The roach went about its way. Fuck, he said. But there was a rich absurdity to the moment that made him chuckle. This was was one of those “when-I-was-a-struggling-writer” stories people tell while accepting the National Book Award or taping a segment for Oprah’s book club.
Later, while tending a grilled cheese sandwich on the stove, G found a roach grooming its profanely long antennae on a nearby pan. And then there was the one pioneering through the folds of his bedspread. And then there was the one dining on toothpaste flakes in his medicine cabinet. And then there was the one waiting for G and his date one evening, Zen-posed on the front door knob, its stillness disturbed only by the screams of a woman fleeing both man and roach.
G realized that this was no charming roach story. At least not a single one. After all, charming single roach stories are all lies of omission. If someone tells a charming roach story, you can be sure they harbor a multitude of uncharming roach stories. And nobody gets popular telling those.
The next morning, G made the bed, smoothing the edges with his hand. He slid into house shoes and headed to the kitchen for coffee. He sprayed vanilla breeze air freshener and drew the window blinds. Privacy glass made the windows cataract white.
He sipped his coffee, looking around the kitchen. He’d left a trail of boric acid on the counter. The roaches had tramped through it like school kids over fresh snow.
G flicked on his computer and it hummed to life. He cradled his cup and reclined into his fold up chair. His editor had sent him an email:
Hope you’re good. I’m writing to express my concern about your novel. To date, Manchild’s Promised Land is officially three months late. I revered the spirit of the first three chapters you shared with me, but we agreed that there were at least seven more to be written. I gave you my notes and our phone conversations indicated to me that we were clear about expectations. Although there is some powerful writing here, it still lacks an approach that will capture readership. I understand that the epic sweep of this novel is about reclaiming the narrative of African-American history, but for lack of a better expression, where’s the “realness?” You need to hook this generation of disenfranchised POC (People of Color), not the last. More Kendrick Lamar, less Henry Louis Gates, if that makes sense? :\
The crucial thing is that you deliver the complete manuscript so we can extend our dialog about the trajectory of this project. I believe in this book, and I believe in you :) but Cherry Pit Press can no longer justify continuing our financial relationship if you fail to deliver this manuscript by the end of the week. If you have any questions, my spirit and mind are open.

All best,
Helen Fielding
Cherry Pit Press

G laughed at the thought of Helen sitting at a cubicle in a Banana Repulic cardigan, thumbing her iPhone to find the specific music reference to convey the flavor of Oreo she tasted in his manuscript.
He thought about sharing the email with his dad, but the last thing he needed now was to hear another black history professor diatribe against Skip Gates. That-old bucky-beaver-looking-motherfucker. G drew deep from his coffee.
The book was trapped in a never-ending series of revisions. He spent hours in the library researching. He sent drafts to his father, who hacked the manuscript with his illegible red pen. He listened to all of Helen’s 29 suggestions, which all contradicted one another. And if that wasn’t enough, there was the story itself: Every time he picked it up, all of the voices inside had something different to say, never like they said it the last. The word count was growing like the population of a small city.
He read over the email again and decided to just send her what he had and beg for more time, even if it wasn’t “real” enough yet. Otherwise, Bread and Gas Mart would become less his current job and more his future career. One deep breath and he opened the Manchild file. Instead of his novel, he found a note:

Dear G,
We have removed your novel from this computer. It will be erased completely if you fail to follow our instructions.
Our apologies if this seems a bit forward. What an honor it is to share our home with someone of such immense literary talent. We’ve read your novel. It’s a work of genius.
We should know. We come from literary stock. Our great-great-great-great grandmother lived in a bathroom sink at the downtown library. She ate binding glue and read Chekov to her brood while they gestated. The smell, the feel, the taste of a well-written page is a part of who we are.
But we need your help to tell our story. Roaches suffer from a perception gap. Humans think we’re all just dirty, harbingers of filth and disease. And many of us are, quite honestly. But we’re also so much more. We have hopes, aspirations. We want our millions of eggs to grow up to be strong blattaria with good character. We want them to not only consume these glorious books, but see themselves in them as well. And not simply as some irritant or problem to be solved. Our nymphs need to aspire for more than to end up squashed on the sole of a tennis shoe.
Quite simply, we need you to add a roach to your story. A brief, sympathetic description of a single roach. You decide where. We could have added the roach ourselves, but we’re confident your talent that will help us truly live on the page. If we encourage brilliant writers like yourself, maybe the world will see the true value of a roach’s life, a roach’s soul.
Grant us this favor and we’ll not only return your manuscript, but we’ll never darken your door again.
The Roaches
In Ms. Mason’s 8th grade social studies class, G wrote a story called “Take Me Home,” about an ancient African ghost named Manchild who wept for his lost children, stolen away to toil forever in a distant land. The story had slavery and slaves and slave ships and slave masters. Whip lashing. Cotton picking. Pregnant mother selling. White houses. Slave quarters. Mustachioed masters in big hats. All the while, Manchild wept for his children.
Ms. Mason’s horn-rimmed glasses steamed with tears and she broke when she read the story aloud to the class. She felt so strongly, she arranged for him to read it at graduation and entered it into a national young writer’s competition, which he won. By all of the judges’ estimations G was the clear winner.
With his father, he traveled to Washington to accept the award. He shook hands and listened while people said nice things about his writing and his future. His father sat in the front row of the large banquet hall, flashing a toothy grin and clapping louder than would seem possible or appropriate. His father’s antics would have irritated him at any other time, but G was gleefully tracing his name in the in the shiny award. The presenter with the long grey hair called him the heir apparent to Richard Wright. He didn’t know who Richard Wright was, but he sure couldn’t wait to be him.
The frosted windows glowed with mid-morning heat. A glaze of cold sweat spread on his brow. He could smell two-day-old banana peel marinating in the trash. G read the note again. The novel was gone. It was there and then it wasn’t. All versions kaput. He bit his tongue and his mouth watered.
What the hell was a library roach anyway? He frowned at the screen. What exactly was the harm of adding one bug? After all, Bigger Thomas battled a psycho monster rat in the first scene of Native Son. But that wasn’t what these roaches were asking for. They wanted a sympathetic roach. A roach you wouldn’t want to smash with your shoe. G drew a blank trying to recall any African-American classics with friendly bugs of any kind, let alone roaches.
That night, G sat on the couch so he could surveil his computer for intruders, but sleep overtook him. He awoke to the chirping of birds. On his computer, another note:

Why don’t you get some rest? You look terrible.
The Roaches

Looking at himself in the mirror, he could tell the note was correct. His eyes were swollen and red. His scalp was dry and flaky. His cheek twitched. But calling in sick to Bread and Gas Mart would probably mean being fired. G wiped crust from his eyes and slapped cold water against his face.
He could have sworn he saw a roach hanging off the shower curtain behind him, but when he turned, it was gone. The roaches were making an effort to avoid him now.
Maybe this was all a grand sign from the big man himself. Maybe God was telling him to get out of sadness swamp and just let go. If things didn't work out with the novel or with Cherry Pit, then he would just have to get over it and move on. He could just write something else. The idea felt so dangerous and inevitable and obvious. It also occurred to him that he should buy a bug fogger. Several.
G rode the bus home as usual. He fought a yawn and turned one of the boxes of insecticide around in his hand. This was a new day. A day to scrub clean the apartment and start fresh. A day to leave Manchild and his tragic brood behind. The story and all of it. The roaches could keep the novel, he would keep his integrity. As he slipped his key in the lock, however, his resolve faltered. G prayed desperately to God that his novel be returned. He looked at the computer screen:

Shame on you
No, your manuscript 
is not here. We want 
to help. Work 
with us. Please.
The Roaches
PS: You need groceries.

“The fucking balls,” G yelled. "Now they're using enjambment in their demand letters!" It seemed like an appropriate response in his mind, but hearing it out loud, made his face flush. He lined six canisters of roach bomb in the middle of the room and snatched the tops off, each erupting in a hissy plume.
After a long walk around the neighborhood, the apartment was thick with chalky poison. On the computer was another note:

Tick tock, tick tock. One roach, one roach.
All best,
The Roaches

G cradled his head in his hands. No one would return the calls of a writer who accepted an advance and didn't finish a book. He tried to calm himself with a deep breath, but the insecticide sent him scrambling to the toilet to vomit. G looked up from the bowl. Three large brown roaches looked down at him from the ceiling.
“Okay,” he said, delirious. “You win. I’ll add the roach, just give me my story back.”
The roaches waved their antennae and scurried away. How was this his life? he thought. He tried to hold them, but the tears came quick and hot.
He returned to the computer. His complete novel was open on the screen, just like he’d left it before. He laughed and clapped his hands, in spite of himself.
It occurred to him that he could save the file on a flash drive and tell the roaches to stick it, but
he remembered that they had promised to leave his apartment for good. He wasn’t sure about the value of a roach’s promise, but he figured he might as well try because the only thing he had to lose was roaches.
He scrolled through the novel and quickly implanted the creature in the scene where Manchild witnesses Frederick Douglass address a room full of white abolitionists.
Douglass towered over the crowd. His hair fluffed like a dark storm, his eyes trimmed with lightning, his voice rumbling with thunder. Manchild looked on as Douglass testified about the ability of words to explode the shackles of hatred. Everyone was transfixed by the master orator. Even a small roach sat attentively at one corner of the stage. When Douglass was finally silent, the assembled mass leapt to their feet and the rafters rumbled with applause and cheers. Manchild wept.
The insecticide haze made G dizzy, but he couldn’t help but smile. This was silly. The roach would have to go, no matter how benign. But maybe that would be enough to make them happy for now. He turned and tried to open one of the windows for some fresh air, but it was stuck. Suddenly, a bolt of inspiration struck. He sat at the keyboard and the words rattled from his fingers. All the voices in the novel were speaking to him, but now they were all saying the same thing. Half conscious of what he was writing, the flow was magical. Hours passed and the light in the windows softened and turned to shadows. His chest swelled when he typed the last line. He scanned the manuscript and then sent it off to his dad and to Helen.
He ate boiled hot dogs in celebration and fell asleep.
The next morning, G checked his email. The first was from his dad:

I’m a little confused by your latest draft. What are all these goddamn roaches doing in your book? Who put you up to this? Give me a call. We should talk.
Next from Helen:
Oh my God: brilliant :)
I don’t know what to say, but you did it. Navigating the pathos of these painful vignettes with roaches was a stroke of provactive genius. Thematically it provides so many layers and gives the story a magical realism that makes the narrative fresh and inviting. I’m working on some more substantive notes for you, but this is going to be huge. You’ve done it. We need to talk about how we’re going to sell this thing. Awesome.

He opened the manuscript and there they were. There were roaches all over his novel: scurrying from the musket fire that felled Crispus Attucks; helping Harriet Tubman hold steady a shotgun on a cowardly runaway slave; trekking northward through Matthew Henson's snowy footprints; licking clean the gun sites of a Tuskegee Airmen on a cold Florence morning; swinging from the zoot suit pocket chain of Detroit Red as he stalked the streets of Harlem; marching on southern lunch counters with “I Am a Roach” signs held aloft; yanking the bus chime for a defiant Rosa Parks; tossing Aretha Franklin’s pillbox hat in celebration at the inauguration of the first Black president. Everywhere.
He heard a clicking behind him on the kitchen counter. A roach stood there, flapping its wings. And then another stepped beside him. And then another. And then another. They came from all corners, all crevices. The ceilings and walls were thick with small flapping roaches. Their applause sounded like rain. 
G could think of nothing else to do, except bow.