Ghostwriting My Grandmother

I let the Jazz flow from my veins, and I put it down in my grandmama name.

Obsessed with not just the meaning behind words, but the sound and rhythm, too, I’ve always been drawn to write what I’ve come to know as Jazz or Harlem Poetry. I never really knew why until I met one of my Ancestors, Norma Heathman, during an Ancestral Retrieval Trancework Journey. Neither my mother nor my grandmother knew my great grandmother, who died at just 40-years old, and I met her in the Ancestor Realm before I even knew her name on Earth. 

Norma came to me in a small cluttered cottage packed to the brim with books. There was a large wooden table in the center of a room, also covered with books. She sat across from me at this table and stared intently into my eyes between towers of stacked pages. I saw in her a sort of sick perversion. It was the angst of a Creatress in chains. 

Her chains were not physical, as some of our Grandmothers had worn. But they were economic, and protruding buoyantly from her chest beneath her milk-stained blouse. 

She was tired and literally drained, her body limp and desperately ready for rest. 

But inside her head raced all the stories – so many stories – and characters and shenanigans, live and full of color! Stories she’d always wished she could write down, make something of, tell it how she saw it in her mind, she said. 

But she was born into a time when such choices were not hers to make of her life. And so, instead of spillin all those stories onto pages, she just went on feedin they babies, rockin they babies, hush now – settin the baby to sleep, now.

And though she surely thought life would go other ways, she never did set not one of them words to page not once. 

That’s why she’d brought me there to that cottage to meet her. She wanted me to write for her, through her, and as her. 

I realized then, this “writing voice” I’d known all my life had never really been my own. At least not alone. It belongs to me and Norma Heathman both, my great grandmother of the Harlem days, came up on that rhythm and rhyme like they crowed in the Old Time flows. (And suddenly my sense of kinship with Mama Zora made even more sense to me!)

So here in 2021, I’ve taken to studying this form called Jazz Poetry, playing with the genre of it, mixed all up in modern day situations and sentiments. The simplicity and yet vibrancy, the multilayered meanings that double speak to different audiences depending on what side of the tracks you grew up on – and sometimes what side of the bed you got up from. Words that be like songs tellin stories from the soul, some to grow on, some just to flow.

In this way I give voice and body to Norma Heathman in ways she never had during her short forty-year walk upon this plane. Now forty myself, in honor of the life she lived and the life she didn’t get to live, I let the Jazz flow from my veins, and I put it down in my grandmama name.

 

Langston Hughes. Photo by Journal Star.

Examples of Jazz Poetry

Langston Hughes, a Black writer with a complicated mixed-race heritage, is credited with creating the genre of Jazz Poetry. Notice the emotionality he brings to words he uses like paint, and how this gives the images a tangibility that evokes a felt understanding of the complex situation of Blackfolk sentiment in America in the times of the Harlem Renaissance (1920s-1930s). 

Here are two of his most well-known pieces, Harlem and Mother to Son.   

Harlem 

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

Langston Hughes
American Jazz Poet 

 

Mother to Son

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor–
Bare.

But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
‘Cause you find it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now–
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

Langston Hughes
American Jazz Poet 

 

 

Fast forward some decades to one of my favorite pieces by Jill Scott, neo soul singer and poetess in her own right. Note her use of imagery and rhythmic flow, as if an evolution from the Harlem era work of Langston. 

Of course, most well-done Jazz Poetry is best heard, rather than read, most definitely a precursor to the art of Spoken Word. And this piece, Love Rain Down, is artfully set to music. Have a listen here

Love Rain Down

Met him on a Thursday,
Sunny afternoon,
Cumulus clouds,
84 degrees,
He was brown
And deep,
Said he wanted to talk about my mission,
Listen to my past lives.
Took me on long walks to places
Where butterflies rest easy,
Talked about Moses and Mumia,
Reparations,
Blue colors,
Memories of shell top Adidas –
He was fresh,
Like summer peaches,
Sweet on my mind,
Like block parties and penny candy
Us was nice and warm,
No jacket, no umbrella, just warm
At night, we would watch the stars
And he would physically give me each and every one
I felt like cayenne pepper, red, hot, spicy
I felt dizzy and Sonya and heaven and miles between my thighs
Better than love, we made delicious
He me had, had me he
He had me tongue tied
I could hear his rhythm in my thoughts
I was his sharp, his horn section
His boom and his bip
And he was my love
Love rain down on me.
The rain was fallin’
Slowly and sweetly
And stinging my eyes and I could not see … that
He became my voodoo priest
And I his faithful concubine,
WIDE OPEN!
WIDE!
Loose like bowels
After collard greens
The Mistake was made
Love slipped from my lips
Dripped down my chin and landed in his lap
And us became new
Now, me, non-clairvoyant and in love
Made the coochie easy and the obvious invisible
The rain was falling
And I couldn’t see the season changing
And the vibe slipping off its axis
Our beautiful melody became wildly staccato
The rain was falling and I could not see
That I was to be plowed and sown and fertilized
And left to drown in his sunny afternoon
Cumulus clouds, 84 degrees, melody
Love rain down on me

Jill Scott
Neo Soul Artist and Musician

Sarah Asia in Ancestral Print.

For Norma

And now mine and my grandmother’s own interpretation and application of Jazz Poetry, first in a response to the once-popular and certainly well-meaning . . . but also somewhat amusing sentiment by Spiritual White America to voice their “condemnation” of white supremacy. In this poem we attempt to call out the impossibility that the dominant social group has any choice in the matter of embodying, protesting, or condemning white privilege and their direct experience within this system of governance. 

Though we appreciate the ideal:

In that Skin

You cannot “condemn”
White supremacy
Walkin in that skin.
If you wish to know,
Take it off, then.
Feel what it’s like
To be a skeleton
Bone dry dead
Not even a hat
To piss in.

You cannot know
White supremacy
Walkin in that skin
You can read and consider
And even care like sin
But you can never
Know the singe
Of bein assumed
Half-human

Norma Heathman
Jazz Poet

 

In the following piece, we ran with this palette to explore how it felt when I suddenly “came to,” so to speak, and realized I’d been culturally whitewashed – bleached of my Black – not just by society and schools and church and friends like everyone else, but even by own parents, well-intentioned as they may have been, responsive as they attempted to be to their own experiences in this crazy mixed up land which leaves us all walking some form of crooked for the ways of us.

And yet, much in the way of tradition, this piece also highlights the cream in the sour, for in my realization of what they’d tried to drown out of me, I realized not only was it beyond fucking impossible to strip me of my Black, I also saw why they ever tried to make us forget in the first place: Black is Mother. Black is Power. Black is Us. 

 

The Day She Woke up White

The day she woke up white
She doubly realized
It had always been that way.
The po thang, blinded just so,
Thinkin she was the twinkle
Up in massa’s eye.

But that day did come
When she saw him right
And heard his echoes
In her own song,
Clawing her mind,
Achin her body,
Steady callin her
Out her Name!

Then she seent the ripples
Movin out across the All –
Everything –
Touched and tainted
By his twisted Word,
Sacred Milk stolen,
Strained and bleached
And fed in troughs
To be lapped like dogs,
Dependent and barred
By the hand that feeds –
And kills –
In a single swipe

And calls it
The Way of a Nation.

But that ain’t me,
She said.

(Oh, but it was.)

She looked down
At her hands now
As his brown paper bag
Metrics computed,
And she saw through it!
Where hands had been,
She now saw inside em:
The Nile rushing as her veins,
The bushy tufts of Afraka
Lining her Valleys
Where Caves lead to Oceans
That birth civilizations
That birth civilizations
That birth civilizations!

Then she saw through that, too.
The sting of his words
As poison of the mind
And body
And heart
And soul.

In truth, he don’t know
What “civilized” mean
Beneath his choppy definition,
Clumsily paved to enslave.

She saw his ignorance then,
Like a baby who lost his mama.
And she knew that’s just what it was.
Cuz can’t no kinda baby
–  White or otherwise –
Thrive without his Mama’s Milk.

And that put it just so
So that she could finally see
Her reflection in both ways:
His funky old funhouse mirror way
And all that she was beneath it.

So knowin now
Who the fuck she was,
She dipped into her Womb
And flicked that reflection
With her pointer in her thumb
And watched it slide and slither,
Makin waves and ripples
That revived lost lives
Of so many drown,
Kilt in cold blood,
Left like rotten fruit
And forgotten –
All for the dollar of it.

She felt then all the forgettin
Resurrectin,
Risin to the top of her skin
Like melanin . . .

And that’s when she heard the song.

First it started out real soft:
Ubuntu is the seed, you see

Then, louder it grew:
Of the soil and the Tree,
Mother, Father, Child as One,

As she recalled the rhythm
And began to hum along:
Both the Scarab and the Sun.

Now she sang:
These severed ends
Must love again

And shouted:
That we may remember
What we knew back then:
Every seed is Ours to feed.

Now she danced all the glory
The Ancestors didn’t dance
Couldn’t dance
Couldn’t shout
Couldn’t sing
Couldn’t speak!

Ubuntu is the seed, you see
Of the soil and the Tree,
Mother, Father, Child as One,
Both the Scarab and the Sun.
These severed ends
Must love again
That we may remember
What we knew back then:
Every seed is Ours to feed.

As the song came back
And filled her body,
So did all the things forgotten –
The songs and stories came back!
The Ways and the Knowings, too!
And the ways of growin
Across continental drift,
Reshaping a nation
After the raping of a culture
Generation after generation –
Yet still we rise –
Not invincible
But certainly magical,
The Mothers and the Fathers
Of the people of Earth:
Forgotten, disgraced, degraded
But rising all the same!
Singing all the same!
Dancing all the same!

And then she saw:
It was the shoutin out
That brought it back
And turned the forgettin
Into re-membering
Resurrecting
Ma’at
Ubuntu
Unity
ONE.

She saw that was his fear all along:
The knowing of ONE,
For then he’d lost control,
Possession
Of our souls,
If we knew
We are ONE.

She saw then
How they tried to paint her
As their own,
Not in love
But to claim her soul,
So she twirled said,

Fuck No.

Then went on about her singin and dancin and shoutin out

Norma Heathman
Jazz Poet

 

Finally, Brother, Oh Brother is a callout to the menfolk of our times, and a (possibly not-so-) subtle comment on the dynamics created between men and women of a sort when life locks them out of the economy for several generations at a spell. When you dehumanize a people, you demasculinize a menfolk. Then you either got left a broken People, extra strong as fuck womenfolk, or a healthy dose of both all at the same time, such as it seems it is.

As a Black Woman, I feel a constant, gnawing Mama Bear roar inside me for Black boys and men, while simultaneously missing and craving to see us back in our essence when our menfolk dripped power and self-ownership like a second skin, and also knew the health of the community relied upon his support and nourishment of us as the Women of the Village

 

Brother, Oh Brother

Brother, my Brother,
Where you at, though?
They might got you down
But we bout to take this show.

We’re strong without you
We been holding this down
But can you imagine
If ya’ll upheld our crown? 

Don’t get it twisted,
This aint about need.
But Brother, we want you
To nourish these seeds.

Don’t let the mirage
Catch you in his game
It’s bigger fish to fry
This not even about blame!

Listen now –
Let us whisper back to you
The song of our Mothers,
The original People,
Our Sisters and Brothers

We pour into you
That you may Remember
The River of Blood
That binds us together

Beneath their citystates
And redlined jurisdictions –
We cannot be limited
By their restrictions!

We > Contain. 

We are strong.
With you, we are stronger.

We are power.
With you, we are a force.

We are complete.
With you, we transcend. 

So Brother, my Brother,
Where you at, though?
These chickens been home,
What We bout to sow? 

Norma Heathman
Jazz Poet

 

Norma Heathman is a Jazz Poet who lived in the Harlem Renaissance era and worked as a wet-nurse until she quit this life at a ripe young age of forty. She now writes from the Ancestral Realm through her great granddaughter. Together they explore the dynamics of race relations in america both old and new, exploiting themes, overlaps, and double standards, all in the way of flippin back our minds to right-side-out from this sneaky Western paradigm that has us hating our own Mother-Source, and therefore our own selves.

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