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I would like to take this opportunity to thank my MFA students and the citizens of Newark, New Jersey for teaching me the value of my education. I’d always valued what I learned in school, but never gave myself any credit for having gone to school and completed the degree. When I left for school, it was clear that most people in my life thought it was a waste of time. One person compared it to “getting a degree in basketball.” This wasn’t said in a cruel way, more as a warning. My daddy thought I was basically being bourgeois. (See the “cotton” scene in Leaving Atlanta.) I am not mad about this. After all, the MFA is a fairly new degree and the idea of a terminal Masters is hard to get your head around for a lot of people in the academy.
Add to this that my parents are extremely modest people. If they had a motto it would be “We do not make a big deal of things.” They both finished their PhDs in the 60s– and this a huge deal. Black Phds in the 60s! Did they march in their graduations? Nope. Are their degrees framed, uh-uh.
So when I finished my MFA, it never occurred to me order invitations or to ask anyone to come to the ceremony. After all, it wasn’t a big deal. I never even picked up the forms to order a cap and gown. It just wasn’t a big deal. What I didn’t admit even to myself that it wasn’t just the ceremony I was blowing off, it was my entire experience and accomplishment. I had my degree in basketball. Whatever.
Fast forward ten years. Now I teach in the MFA at Rutgers Newark. I have had the honor and pleasure of directing brilliant people who are working on brilliant projects and I am crazy proud of them. I respect the writing itself, but I also respect the dedication and sacrifices they made to get the degree. When I signed off on the theses this year, I made sure “Pomp and Circumstance” played in the background. Sometimes, I think I even embarrass them with my enthusiasm.
As I blogged a few weeks back, I bought my academic regalia. I went all out, buying custom with all the bells and whistles. So yesterday, I put it on– hat and everything– and walked to the subway to go to my students’ graduation.
God Bless the citizens of Jersey City and Newark!
I live in a gentrifying neighborhood in Jersey City. There are yuppies with their arugula, but there are still a lot of regular people– mostly blacks folks, Puerto Ricans, and immigrants who work hard every day. These folks all offered warm congratulations to me as I walked to the subway station. Someone shook my hand, another one speculated that my mother must be proud. I felt a little guilty accepting all this love, after all it wasn’t my graduation day, but I smiled and said thank you.
Once I got on the PATH train, it was like I was the queen of public transportation! People with accented English offered well wishes. Again more hand shaking. A child stroked the velevet trim of my robe. Finally, I admitted to a man dressed in stained coveralls that I wasn’t really graduating. He said to me, “Congratulations, still.” He gestured at my regalia, “If you got it on, you must supposed have it on. You must have earned it.”
I know this is corny, but I teared up.
Once in Newark, the faculty lined up to march about four blocks to the ceremony.
Rutgers-Newark is the most diverse undergraduate campus in the country. Black and brown faces made up almost half of the procession of eager graduates. The faculty, however, has not quite caught up, so I am still distinct in the line. As I marched, black folks lining the streets gave me thumbs up. I heard,”You go girl,” called out. I smiled and waved like Miss America. It felt great.
Then, I started thinking about my students and how proud I was of them and how hard they worked. It occurred to me that I had worked just as hard. Finally, I was able to let some of the glow I saw in their faces, reflect back on me.
Heading to the auditorium yesterday, a woman pointed me out to her little girl, then she called out. “Hold your head up, sister. Everybody don’t make it that far.”
I smiled, and did as I was told.
(some snapshots of our amazing graduates.)
A couple of days ago I was tootling down Jersey Ave, here in Jersey City, and I stumbled upon the coziest bookstore, Imagine Atrium. I could not believe that I live within 3 blocks of an independent bookstore and didn’t even know it. Me, being me, I walked right in and introduced myself to Garrad, the owner. We talked a lot about books and about the importance of supporting local businesses.
On the check out desk was a novel displayed in a little stand. A sign underneath said, “Review This Book For Our Website.” I, thinking on my feet said, “Do you have an early copy of the new Toni Morrison novel?” Garrad said, “No, but maybe I could get it.” I will spare you the details of me dancing a jig and urging him on. Today, he called me and told me that I could come and pick it up.
Imagine Atrium is part of “Indie Bound” the organization of independent bookstores, formerly known as Booksense. The difference is that Indie Bound is not about just about bookstores. It’s about spending your money in your community. It’s about fighting the homogenization of our culture. It’s about raising awareness and it’s about rigor. Indie Bound is about supporting institutions that support you and not handing over all your resources to the big chains that don’t really care about readers or writers or citizens in general.
If you are ever in Jersey City, check out his store. He cares about what we care about.
New Jersey residents are required to move our cars from one side of the street to the other each day in order to accommodate the street sweeper. (I have watched the sweeper several times, and I haven’t noticed any difference in the street cleanliness.) Anyway, I was out this morning in an outfit that is more formal that pajamas and less formal than, say, sweatpants. It was 8am and I just needed to get my car to the safe side of the street to avoid a $45 ticket.
Anyway, I noticed cars backed up behind a short yellow school bus. This being Jersey, everyone was honking like they got paid by the decibel. The school bus was parked in front of an apartment building with its stop signs out. Eventually a kind of stocky man wearing an undershirt and pair of drawstring pants came hustling out with a little girl in his arms. His biceps were covered with elaborate tattoos featuring the suffering head of Jesus and assorted pin-ups. He carried the girl carefully; her posture suggested that she was developmentally delayed.
Observing the line of honking cars, the tattooed gentleman covered the girl’s eyes and proceed to make a really vulgar hand gesture. (I was clutching at my pearls!) Then, he carried the girl onto the bus. When the door hissed shut, he blew a dozen kisses at the window as the bus drove away. Once he was certain that his sweet girl was out of eye and ear shot, he made the gesture twice more and included the verbal translation, before returning to the apartment.
Welcome to the neighborhood.
Last night, poets Major Jackson and Rigoberto Gonzalzes read as part of the Writers at Newark series. As a faculty member, I was part of the organizing and you know how it is when you are on the committee, you worry, worry, worry. Silly me. These two were 100% professional and 200% talented. In short, they rocked the house and it was a challenging house to rock.
The audience included the MFA students, who, of course, were glad to be there. Also in attendance were some of my wonderful undergraduates who were under just the slightest bit of pressure, and (this was such a treat) 16 high school students from St. Benedict’s! Only truly gifted poets could give a reading that had everyone enthralled.
Yes, yes, yes I took pictures. And of course I wore new shoes. For Major and Rigoberto, I pulled out all the stops.
Since I am pulling up stakes from DC, I thought I should probably start a new category for my observations in my new home– New Jersey. I’ll call it “Jersey Journals.”
I am writing this from my new apartment. Boxes are all over the place. (Cardboard recyling isn’t until Thursday.) Black Hefty bags stuffed with paper, styrofoam, etc are blocking my way. (Garbage can be taken to the curb only after six p.m. on Mondays.) These are just two early signs that things here in Jersey are different than in any of the NINE places I have lived since 1991.
One of the most striking things about Jersey City is that it is gentrifying. I wrote a bit about Atlanta’s “urban renewal” in my second novel, The Untelling. Well, I am here to tell you. You haven’t seen urban renewal until you have seen it N.E. style! My friend, Allison, calls it “The Invisible Electric Fence.”