Regie Gibson: “the blooz man is i”

Regie GibsonPerhaps the most electric slam poet in America, Regie Gibson (b. 1966) has, among many honors, won the 1997 money slam and the 1998 individual slam title.  He and his work have been featured in the Theodore Witcher film love jones, and he has lectured and performed at venues ranging from universities to clubs across the United States and on two other continents.  His performance style has often been called “rhythmistical,” signifying his weaving together of song, mysticism, the African griot tradition, and the hard funk of black American experience—a combination naturally leading to his other lives as actor, percussionist, and activist.  He published Storms Beneath the Skins  in 1999 (re-issued in 2001).  “blooz man,” his signature piece, was featured in the 2000 Steppenwolf Theater production Words on Fire, a celebration of Chicago poetry based partly on Smokestacks and Skyscrapers, the Chicago literature anthology I edited with David Starkey.

In my Black Writing from Chicago, I featured the second of “blooz man”’s three parts—the first moving from God as blooz man to the poet as blooz man, the third centering on blooz in the parent-child chain of survival.  Part II, “realization,” is a red-hot chain of “i is” statements identifying the blooz man as “whine of all things terrible,” “throbbin eye of battered wife,” “white sail blown by winds of profit,” “screamin stream of ash / blackenin skies over bergen-belsen,” “ornament forged from all shackled human freedoms,” “eagles feather trampled neath hooves of final solution,” “angry innocence / of questionin blood,” “missin eye of collective myopia….”

And when he performs “blooz man” and other poems where things whine, he delivers that whine like a stretched-out, twanging high note from a Hendricks guitar solo.  The crowd goes wild.  It’s impossible to describe in words the atomic dynamics of his performance.   You’ll have to check out some YouTube videos and hope someday someone does a best-of-Regie compilation that captures a fraction of something.  Start HERE, his tribute to James Marshall Hendricks.  It’s only an ok approximation of Regie, but worthy of Jimi nonetheless.

Regie GibsonYet for all its energy one realizes this tribute is an elegy, and that an elegiac mood weaves through everything Gibson does. I also included his poem “Prayer” in Black Writing from Chicago, a poem which begins: “for the drummers hands / severed before they could strike skin.”  Gibson is so present as a performer, so there, but he writes so much about absent things, aborted things, things severed before their time, things going up the smokestacks of death camps.

 Go to a list of Black Writers on this site, and the Teaching Diversity page.

 Go to Black Writing from Chicago, where you can learn more and also BUY the book.

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Metea: “We will sell no more…”

Metea, Patomwatomi Chief A Potowatomi chief from near the Wabash River, Metea’s birth date is unknown, although it is believed that he fought for the British during the War of 1812 and died in 1827.  In Smokestacks and Skyscrapers: An Anthology of Chicago Writing David Starkey and I included one of the most famous speeches in Native American history, Metea’s August 19th speech on the second day of negotiations that resulted in the 1821 Treaty of Chicago.  More than 3,000 Potawatomis came and heard Metea say, “My Father”—a traditional Native American expression of respect for whites—“we shall sell no more.” But twelve days into the negotiations Metea, Topinbee, Chebanse and other Potawatomi leaders capitulated, ceding much of what is today southwest Michigan.

In her wonderful book Rising Up from Indian Country my colleague Ann Durkin Keating reports that, “Between 1816 and 1833, the Patowatomis ceded virtually all of the 18,000,000 acres of land they claimed east of the Mississippi.  This was an almost bloodless conquest of monumental proportions.  The Patowatomi lands cut a wide swath from Detroit to the Mississippi, moving hundreds of miles on either side of what would become the southern boundaries of Michigan and Wisconsin.  The territory was taken through a series of land treaty negotiations instead of on the battlefield.”  In the 1795 Greenville Treaty, the United States had negotiated for “islands” within Indian territory, but by the 1820’s the situation had reversed.  Now the Potawatomi were islanded in five, 36-square-mile tracts inside U.S. territory.

Metea Valley High School

Crest of Metea Valley High School, which opened in 2009 in the Aurora-Naperville, IL, area.

Metea’s words come to us translated by explorer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, who included the speech in his 1825 Travels in the Central Portions of the Mississippi.  Metea, who just nine years before had been one of the warriors who destroyed the U.S. outpost at Chicago, was famed for his eloquence, which Schoolcraft described as follows:  “His sentences have a measured flow, and he always appears to have a ready comment of language.  His voice is not unpleasant, nor can his manner be considered as vehement, comparatively speaking.  It is rather in his sentiments, than in his action and manner, that he is bold, fearless, and original.”

Despite the eventual outcome of the Treaty of Chicago, Metea’s words still ring with tremendous authority.  Perhaps the most famous two paragraphs are:

“My Father—Our country was given to us by the Great Spirit, who gave it to us to hunt upon, and to make down our beds upon, when we die.  And he would never forgive us should be now bargain it away.  When you first spoke to us for land at St. Mary’s [Ohio], we said we had a little, and agreed to sell you a piece of it; but we told you we could spare no more.  Now, you ask us again.  You are never satisfied!

“My Father—We have sold you a great tract of land already; but it is not enough!  We sold it to you for the benefit of your children, to farm and to live upon.  We have now but a little left.  We shall want it all for ourselves.  We know not how long we may live, and we wish to leave some lands for our children to hunt upon.  You are gradually taking away our hunting grounds.  Your children are driving us before them.  We are growing uneasy.  What lands you have you may retain forever; but we shall sell no more.”

 Watch a Video in which David Starkey and I perform sections of Metea’s speech.

 Go to Smokestacks and Skyscrapers, where you will soon be able to BUY the book, though copies are limited; and to a list of Chicago Writers on this site.

♦ Go to the Teaching Diversity main page.

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John Jones Crusades Against “Black Laws”

John JonesBorn in Greene County, North Carolina, around 1816, John Jones moved to Chicago in 1845 and established a tailor shop which had many wealthy, white Chicago customers.  By the 1870’s it made him perhaps the wealthiest black in the Midwest.  But Jones is best known as the author of the pamphlet The Black Laws of Illinois, portions of which I presented in my book Black Writing from Chicago.  The pamphlet was only part of his tireless crusade against laws which, among other things, prohibited blacks from testifying in courts and purchasing property.  Jones became the first black to hold elected office in the state when, in 1872, he was elected to a three-year term on the Cook County Board of Commissioners.  In a 1905 letter to the Illinois Historical Society concerning the 1875 celebration of Jones’ 30 years in Chicago, his daughter Mrs. L.J. Lee says that, “The whole life of Mr. Jones has been spent in devotion to the welfare of his race….”  For example, he was “instrumental in sending hundreds of fugitives to Canada on the day after the signing of the Fugitive Slave law…,” but he regarded “none of his labors…with more satisfaction than his warfare upon the Black Laws of this State….”  Jones died on May 27, 1879, and is buried in Graceland Cemetery, Chicago’s most famous resting place.

Mary JonesMention should also be made of his wife, Mary Jones.  In 1955 their granddaughter, Theodora Lee Purnell, wrote to the Illinois Historical Society, Chicago, noting that the Society has an oil painting of her grandfather. “I have,” she writes, “ the mate of this portrait, an oil painting of Mary Jones…which was painted at the same sitting…They belong together.”  She continues:

“My Grand-mother, Mary Jones was at his side in his every endeavor and accomplishment as a citizen of the United States, the State of Illinois and Chicago in particular….

“In her own field she made Chicago history.

“She was mistress of the home where Nathan Freer, John Brown, Frederick Douglass and Allen Pinckerton visited.  She harbored and fed the fugitive slaves that these men brought to her door…In fact she stood at my Grand-father’s side…when their early Chicago home became one of the Underground Railway Stations….

“She was a pioneer in the…Suffrage Movement and was hostess to Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Chatman Catt, Emma Chandler and Mrs. John Brown.

“In later years after her husband’s death, she contributed generously to the now famous Hull House Social Service Center, Phylis Wheatley Home for Unfortunate Girls, to Provident Hospital….”

Mrs. Purnell was then 84 years old and seeking assurance that history would be remembered more fully. In the excerpts from The Black Laws I included in Black Writing from Chicago, I sought most to convey John Jones’ argument for reading history more fully—black and white entwined—as if black history is American history itself.

The Black Laws was a 16-page pamphlet published by the Tribune book company in 1864.  I included several important passages of Jones’ text, tying them together with my summaries of omitted parts.  The pamphlet’s rhetoric presents humble appeals to the people of Illinois, but draws near its end more forcefully:  “God being our helper, we plan to remain on American soil with you.  When you are in peace and prosperity, we rejoice; and when you are in trouble and adversity, we are sad.  And this notwithstanding, proscription follows us in the school-house , and, indeed, drives us out; follows us to church, in the lecture room, in the concert-hall, the theatre…follows us to the grave;—for I assure you, fellow citizens, that today a colored man cannot buy a burying lot in the city of Chicago for his own use.”

Then I presented some sections of a speech Jones delivered in 1872.  Also published as a pamphlet, it consisted of much of the same material and, in many ways, represents a more rousing expression of the heart of the original pamphlet, most of which was a section by section rebuttal of the Black Laws.  In the “speech pamphlet” Jones extends his plea to read history more fully into a call to vote the right people into office.  In those days—in what sounds so ironic to us today—that meant, to Jones, the Republican Party.  “My colored countrymen,” Jones intones near the end of his speech, “the Republican Party has lifted us up from the degradation of slavery and put us upon an equal footing with themselves…and to that party we, in my judgment, ought to cast our first vote, and God being my helper I mean to vote for its candidates in November.”

Today there are few formal “Black Laws,” but an informal structure of “Black Laws” is still strongly in force in most places in the United States.

 Go to a list of Black Writers on this site, and the Black Writing from Chicago page, where you can also BUY the book.

  Go to the Teaching Diversity main page.

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