Why did you choose to teach?
I probably chose to teach because my dad taught middle school science. I’ve known for years that that had everything to do with my majoring in biology, but I don’t think I’ve understood that teaching influence. When my mother went to college in her 40s, she became a teacher. My aunt taught at Delaware Technical and Community College, and I drove there top speed from my day job to teach a speed reading course over a college summer. To say teaching was a choice may be putting it too strongly. It was more likely imitation.
As a senior lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Pennsylvania, what do you hope your students take away from you?
I hope that they find a way to keep open the door to their own curiosity. I teach writing, sometimes fiction, sometimes non-fiction, sometimes writing about teaching. I don’t teach content so much as process. It’s more like coaching track, say, which I’ve done, than it is like teaching literature.
Most of my UPenn students are skilled in criticism. I try to help them find pathways in their thoughts and emotions toward creativity. I’m not talking about the flakey, hands-in-the-air, big-wonder-circle pretend stuff that our super-practical American sensibility is quick to deride. Creating art requires courage, patience, curiosity, and rigorous discipline, not all at once, but in waves that one needs to manage. I try to coach them to learn how to mine themselves: their experiences, emotions, ideas, perceptions, and research; they learn how to risk exposing their creation. Once they assemble the ideas, stories, obsessions, joys, memories, observations, and facts that collect around one little assignment, then they learn, I hope, to watch themselves assemble this stuff into narrative. I hope they observe, as one does in meditation, what mental processes and work habits lead to their strongest writing, and what bad habits sabotage it. We work on learning how to assess the work curiously as writers, rather than critics, whose, admittedly important, job is to judge a work, not revise it. I hope they learn how to let the writing teach them appropriate ambitions.
I also try to help them create a writing community in our class, one based on becoming stronger writers by helping each other, rather than grade grubbers trying to score points with me by showing that they are smarter than the people next to them.
The Social Activist
In 10 words or less, what is Art Sanctuary?
Excellent black arts and letters. In the community. For real.
What are you building with Art Sanctuary?
What we’re trying build is an organization capable of bringing resources and energy to the arts and literacy needs of urban people using black art. We will have fulfilled our legacy if we build an organization that can house and feed itself, hire good people, create fine arts projects.
If we manage to create such a self-perpetuating organization, then it will learn new program goals and create new legacies every generation. But the first thing is to get the baby grown. That has everything to do with vision, right spirit, institution building, and resources.
What led you to The President’s House project?
I was invited to participate in The President’s House in Historic Philadelphia by the historical interpretation team, led byKelly/Maiello. I feel as if I was led by the ancestors, not so much because I’m some oracular interpreter of history, but because my experience in community arts through Art Sanctuary had prepared me for the public art-making process. Public meetings, conflicting agendas, deeply held passions in brilliant people who want the best for important constituents, other people who are also called by the ancestors, time constraints, power struggles over how money gets spent impacting how the story gets told: It’s not for everyone.
What do you hope individuals take away from The President’s House experience?
I stopped by the other night. A man, white, I think, was standing in front of the Oney video with his young teenaged daughter, maybe 13 or so. They watched with such focus. At the end, the man asked her: “Did you understand that? You know what she was saying?”
The girls shook her head. “Yeah, I did. I think so.”
The father turned and looked around the site. Two video screens were down. He focused on one that was playing and asked: “You wanna look over there at that one?”
“First,” she said, “I want to see how this one started, because we didn’t come in at the beginning.”
I hope that as many as possible of the five million visitors a year to The President’s House can feel some of that family’s care for the enslaved Africans in that house and by extension, all of those held in bondage at the start of our country. We’ve created a false dichotomy that says that in order to admire the achievements of the founding fathers, we have to ignore what’s arguably their greatest failing, as people and founders. But by not noticing slavery, as a country, we’ve made it political orthodoxy to not notice the lives of the black people they enslaved. I want them to be acknowledged, heard, cared for, as we care for others in history, as we care for ourselves—we, whoever we are—we the people. I also hope that at least some folks will understand that the free black people here in Philadelphia at the time were tireless in forging an important concept of radical freedom from the practical American ideal of commercial liberty.
You published Black Ice in 1991. How have your sentiments about class, race and sex in America changed since then, if at all?
My experience of race, class, and gender in America have changed as the country has evolved.
? RE: race. On the one hand we have a black president. On the other, when I go to schools where children have readBlack Ice, students still feel as if this book articulates for them a recognizable version of the pressure they feel in white institutions. They feel pressured to assimilate, to make others comfortable, to prove or disprove U.S. stereotypes, or to leave at the door to the institution any aspect of their home culture that might threaten the majority’s power.
? RE: class. My childhood was infused with the democratizing power of an expanding middle class. In my adulthood, I’m watching our public policies and tax codes concentrate wealth again. It feels to me that our democracy is being made less stable, our working people more desperate.
? Re: gender. I’ve not been as much of a student of gender as I have of race and class, but I have lived it as fully as any fact in my life. I don’t have big sentiments about gender. I’ve had children, which enforces biology in a way nothing else has for me.
When do you write?
Morning is best. But I write whenever my current work schedule dictates. An evening big write followed by sleep, followed directly by more writing is fabulous. That gives me total access to the unconscious, which is where the deep creative energy and action is. Editing and revising I can do anytime. And do.
Where do you write?
The laptop has changed this answer for me. I write on my third floor, in the dining room corner where the sun comes in, in my office at UPenn, at the home of dear friends, because it feels as if someone’s rooting for you. I have written at Yaddo in upstate NY, and at Civitella Ranieri in Umbria, Italy. I write on the bus and subway. If I think of something while I’m driving, I pull over and write on the shoulder of the road or in loading zones. I do not write in cafes.
Why do you write?
Writing is my practice. It’s the one thing I do that integrates mind, body, and spirit. I need it.