October 23, 2019

On Prairies, Poetry, and Black Flânerie

A few weeks ago, I gave a talk to the Visual and Critical Studies Department at the Wattis Institute on CCA’s San Francisco campus. To get there: I walked west toward the train on 40th St. in Oakland, through the hip-salon-bar-and-café corridor that used to be quiet save for Art’s Crab Shack, the Ella Baker Center, the wig shop, and a front-ish pizza spot. I disembarked at 16th Street, a hub that remains as lively as ever, full of people and sounds and smells and frenzy. I walked down 16th to the place where the Mission gives way to Potrero Hill, an area that used to mark the mouth of the region once so anomalously Black that I have memories of riding the 22 just to see familiar people. 1 There’s a different familiarity now, and I’ve been away so long that most of the place markers of that old-familiar are gone. Out of all the American cities I have lived in, San Francisco is the one town in which I’ve never had a sense of cardinal direction.

Recalling my path that day, I see myself floating down a river. My soft tissue moves with the current, gently carried just out of reach of the bank and the dark forested mountains beyond. 2 I rarely snag a rock, but it doesn’t feel right to talk of pathways without acknowledging the avoided divergences. By divergence I don’t mean flânerie or wanderlust. I mean: The choice to divest from the path and verge toward the thicket. I mean: Snagging on the rock and then hoisting oneself up to the tallgrass / Where your legs get scratched so you bleed / Where no one watches as you trample the meadow / You do this for yourself, but without thinking of yourself / Why would anyone cut their skin in the thicket without reason?

When I lived in San Francisco, I found spatial divergence exceedingly difficult (despite the Bay being a generally divergent place). Things freed up a bit more for me in Oakland. But in Illinois we actually have prairies: I’ve walked through them. As I did while in residence at Ragdale in Lake Forest, I kept thinking of Layli Long Soldier’s preface to WHEREAS: “Now / make room in the mouth / for grassesgrassesgrasses.” 3 Only someone who has known the work of grasses could begin to fathom the meaning of that sound (grassesgrassesgrasses), and I did not before this summer in the prairie. Undisturbed growth wild as a rainforest, full of color, life, texture, and frenzy. The grass grows high, and the deeper one ventures into it the more one’s compulsive need to locate home as a proprietary place of walls and rooms becomes irrelevant to the larger ecosystem. The prairie is a place one travels to diminish oneself — to make room in the mouth/gut/spirit for the other.

Prairie is precious space. As I write this, I sit in a Midwestern home surrounded by tallgrass which has not represented sellable parcels for some time. 4 Perhaps the ethos of the prairie — expansive divergent space we move through and with — extends its tendrils into the South Side. From my window, I can see the empty lot grass growing around an old carryout container, and a brown-skinned person wrapping their jacket around themselves tightly as they cut through the thicket en route to the road.

  1. Although the 22 did not make it all the way up and over the Hill toward Terrace-Annex (the oldest public housing in the city, along with Holly Courts, and thus a hub of Frisco Blackness), it was an easy bus to catch from where I used to live at 16th and Dolores, and I would frequently ride with folks headed to or from home. The 22-Fillmore is so named because it runs from the Dogpatch west through the Fillmore District and further north. For a period, I was in the habit of riding it all the way to the Fillmore — to New Chicago Barbershop 3, the last Black barbershop in San Francisco (before Chicago’s II). Perhaps New Chicago shuttered because they couldn’t expand their staff fast enough to meet the needs of the shifting market (i.e., no more Black hair). But the Fillmore — like the bottom of the other side of the Hill — used to be Black. Its Blackness was a fact as true as my bottom lip, for which time refused to stand still.
  2. In his 1964 handbook to modern warfare (arguably the template for the US training scheme on tactical counter-insurgent operations), French military officer David Galula described “the ideal situation for the insurgent would be a large land-locked country shaped like a blunt-tipped star, with jungle-covered mountains along the borders and scattered swamps in the plains…”  (David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (Praeger, 1964), 25.)
  3. Layli Long Soldier, WHEREAS: Poems (Graywolf Press, 2017), 5.
  4. I write from a bedroom on the South Side of Chicago, bordered on two sides by empty lots and on a third by Washington Park. Like others of Frederick Law Olmsted’s designs (in particular, Central Park with its concentric rings initially intended for spectatorship and surveillance), Washington Park continues to do race, class, and social work into the twenty-first century. A beautiful expanse of lakes, willow, and pine trees, with boulevards running through it, the park sits between the University of Chicago and the Washington Park/Englewood neighborhoods. It functions as a psychic sound barrier, an energetically quiet place between two other places that can mean whatever she who encounters the place needs it to mean. A pause between nonsense and order, stagnation and frenzy, familiarity and violence, whatever. Englewood is home to St. Benedict the African (a Black Roman Catholic church and oasis, named for the sixteenth-century enslaved African). The University of Chicago is the home to the Chicago School of Sociology (which actively undermined the critical work on Black life carried out by W.E.B. DuBois and other Black scholars). The Park sits between the two.
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