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I can’t hit the page without hearing Hendrix, his psychedelically bluesed guitar journeys I bathed in for at least an hour every day for four or five years of my early twenties until I’d memorized every solo, him fingering feedback and folding wah wah into sonic ambulances of soul. I can’t hit the page without the echo of Muddy Waters’s Mississippi guitar that found its way to an electrified Chicago, without hearing the “I’m a Man” foundational blocks with his legendary harmonica men—Little Walter, Carey Bell, James Cotton, Junior Wells, Big Walter Horton, George Smith. I hear their tremolo and bravado, the shuffles, train tracks and galactic howls seeping from their mouths through reeds and between their fingers, and I ache to bring it to the page—I bleed to breathe it into stanzas. I can’t hit the page without Yusef Lateef and John Lee Hooker and Curtis Mayfield blazing across the chorus. I can’t hit the page without Prince on stage at the Super Bowl strutting in the rain, singing his signature into the far-off lightning. I can’t hit the page without Al Green’s falsetto grinding against his acoustic guitar, making the angels grit their teeth with jealousy. I can’t hit the page without Coltrane walking the bar with his horn, scraping the blues into abstraction from beneath a heated spoon. I can’t hit the page without Art Tatum’s cataracted cosmic vision burning up the eighty-eights with blinding speed. I can’t hit the page without Mingus and Diz and Marley and Fred McDowell and Howlin’ Wolf whisper-growling in my ear to know their names with mine.

I can’t hit the page without Amiri Amiri Amiri Amiri Amiri Amiri Amiri. I heard the Lightnin’ Hopkins, the Sun Ra, the Ellington and Basie and Ayler he firestormed to the stage when he roared and laughed and proclaimed. I can’t hit the page without Langston Hughes in one pocket, Ernest Gaines in another and Leon Forrest on the nightstand. I can’t hit the page without James Baldwin and August Wilson on the passenger side with Sam Greenlee in the back talking shit and all us laughin’.

Many so many of them were not always gentlemen or gentle men. Many so many of them were imperfect, flawed, at times dangerous, needy, selfish, and small. Many so many of them were many times intractable and stubborn, peevish and rude. Rambunctious. Troublesome. Inappropriate. Wrong. But when they put their demons down, or even tricked those demons to help pick up their swords of imagination and will to help do the dirty lovely Black Sorcery of Fully Being, they were doing service to the business for which they were sent to this planet. And many so many of them have taught me nobility with the words unsaid or the truth laid just so. And many so many of them have split themselves open with sacrifice when nobody was watching. And many so many of them took it and took it and never threw back in spite. And many so many of them were larger than anything they’d ever imagined and propped multitudes on their shoulders, King-like, with Malcolm defiance, or just by safeguarding their families’ homes.

They knew that being BLACKMANINAMERICA™ means to always be under suspicion. To embody the bullseye of an American tradition that no other demographic has been so thoroughly tied to—being tied to a tree by a throbbing, festive mob and then castrated, whipped and burned alive like a torch lighting up the country’s cavernous carnivorous heart. That more than any other demographic, they could be accused of the unthinkable with no evidence and forced to pay with life or years of life. These men realized that there is no way out of the maelstrom, but that there was a way into themselves that no one else could fully capture or own—their voices playing out on microphones or keyboards or finger pads or strings or drums or even through a tiny pencil in a tiny cell staring at forty-seven pictures taped to a wall. And to speak from that kind of will, that kind of pigheaded hope, strutting ambition and desire to know yourself through pure expression is a kind of love. A love that just might turn a life around and that a man can build a life around.

I couldn’t hit the page without my homefolk like Detroiter Dudley Randall, who told me once just before I left the D for good that maybe writing was what I needed to do. I couldn’t hit the page without another native Detroiter, Haki Madhubuti, whose tracks I followed to Chicago and whose bookstore was the first Black-owned bookstore I’d ever bought a book from—Dudley Randall’s The Black Poets anthology. And I couldn’t hit the page without another Detroiter, Robert Hayden, who peered through his coke-bottle glasses and, so some tell me, would sometimes cry when he’d ask the question, What do I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?

What do I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?

I loved it when Miles turned his back to the audience—’cause I knew that he was about to play his liberation and not buck for the crowd. I loved it when Muhammad Ali asked Ernie Terrell over and over the question that would define his life—“What’s my name?”—and pounded each syllable of his identity into America’s TV sets. I loved it when Walter Payton bulldozed and ballet-danced his way across end zones ’cause I knew he was running toward greatness, weaving through obliteration with every yard. I loved it when Richard Pryor laughed against his smoked-up demons, when Redd Foxx told me to wash my ass. I love Mingus about as much as I love the austerity of Sterling Plumpp’s poems that taught me how the blues still lives in our stories; about as much as I love the flare in Sammy Davis’s tap dance and the moondust in Michael Jackson’s walk; about as much as I love the loneliness in Marvin Gaye’s falsetto; about as much as I love the lushness of Charles White’s paintings and Romare Bearden’s collages.

I know the austerity of my father’s love—that it is hard and thorny like a stubborn, starved weed. I don’t know the loneliness of being born in 1929 and growing up Black in Greenville, South Carolina, in the dead weight of America’s Depression. I don’t know the austere loneliness of my grandfather who was drafted in World War II despite having three kids to support, but I think I know a bit of the Withers in his deep silences that he passed down to my father. I don’t know the kind of austerity that was branded onto my dad between southern lynchings and northern segregation, and I can only imagine his loneliness navigating to Detroit and a PhD in chemistry by age twenty-seven. I don’t know the austerity of raising a family in the seventies and eighties, and I only know of his loneliness now when he calls me from Detroit after months in quarantine, eager to show the love he’d hidden for so many years like a secret bank account with passcodes he can barely remember. But I know that I can’t hit the page without him either—that it was his newspapers, magazines, and books that I was reading for fun as a kid in my first library, that I wish I had his level of sheer concentration when he studied or read, that I still have some of his stubborn nature when it’s hard for me to tell him “I love you.”

I can’t hit the page without all of them, all the pages and pages of Black men I could mention here that whispered or screamed in my ear with the same desire to live honestly free. All these brothers, uncles, daddies, and pops—the sinners and the soulsters and the saints alike. I can’t hit the page without hearing them at my elbow or in my ear, even when they fuck up terribly and even when I’m tryin’ not to envy how brilliant they be. You see, as Etheridge once told me, I know their style, they know mine. I am all of them, they are all of me.


Note: The phrase “Sacred Black Masculine” is from Dr. T. Hasan Johnson’s ruminations on the subject in the development of Black Male Studies.