by Dr. Daniel R. Hubbard
“As it is my design to make those that can scarcely read understand, I shall therefore avoid every literary ornament and put it in language as plain as the alphabet.” —Thomas Payne
...All writing comes from the grace of God. —Ralph Waldo Emerson
Like the great poets Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997)1 and Claude McKay (1889-1948), 2 I too was exceedingly young when I first heard “the voice:” a melancholy whisper that utterly intoxicated me and lifted my soul unto the lofty realm of higher consciousness; as it dwelt on the lower frequencies. If memory serves me correctly it happened on the day of the summer solstice, in 1970; as I labored unremittingly in a cotton field situated on the outskirts of Bakersfield, California, juxtaposed Highway 99. It was there, in a field of soft, white downy—trying to earn enough money to buy school cl othes for the coming term (it was to be my first at Bakersfield High School)—when I first heard “the voice” of God, confirming, “my life’s assignment was to write!”
1. In 1965, Allen Ginsberg, in an interview with Thomas Clarke, described his experience of hearing “the voice” as follows: “The peculiar quality of ‘the voice’ was something unforgettable because it was like God had a human voice, with all the infinite tenderness and anciency and mortal gravity of a living Creator speaking to his son….”
2. Often regarded as the first major poet of the Harlem Renaissance, Claude McKay probably did more than anyone else to shape the trends that would later define that literary movement. More than any other writer of his time, he was able to satisfy and even inspire two major groups of black readers. Many African Americans were attracted to his poetry by its frequently explosive condemnations of bigotry and oppression, written invariably and ironically in such traditional poetic forms as the sonnet, his fav orite. Other readers, more easily moved by poetry in the genteel tradition, were also satisfied, even as they were introduced at the same time to the power of race-conscious verse. These two groups sometimes seemed irreconcilable. Had it not been for McKay, they might have remained so in the Renaissance. According to Freda Scott Giles (http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/m_r/mckay/life.htm), McKay began writing coherent verse around the age of ten. However, many of the oral historians of Jamaica pur port that he actually began hearing “the voice” of God, “instructing him to write,” nearer the age of six or seven.
To the best of my recollection, there were about a dozen souls working the field on that sweltering June day—the only ones I remember by name were Oscar Dean, the labor contractor, Reverend David Abraham Kelly, the “Row boss” and pastor of the Heavenly Gate Church of God In Christ, and “Sweet” Lorraine Tipton, the lovely young girl from “Little Oklahoma”3 who later became my high school sweetheart. The remainder of the crew consisted of some elderly church-folk who routinely worked the cotton fields i n order to supplement their fixed incomes and a few “street philosophers” who, under the cover of night, miraculously transfixed themselves into “winos” while frequenting the many “joy houses” and taverns in the “Blue Light District” of Cottonwood Road. 4
It was not that my family was poor, and I was forced to work the cotton fields out of necessity; the truth of the matter is that I was not the type to burden my grandparents with buying me the latest sneakers, jackets, designer jeans, and other paraphernalia that all the other boys my age seemed to find so fashionable and cool. Taking me into their home after my parents divorced and providing me with a nice wool suit for church and special occasions, a winter coat, and a pair of Levi 501 jeans at the beginning of each school year always seemed to be the limit of what my conscience could require of them. So, without putting much thought into the matter, I was directed to the one sure place where I knew I could earn enough money to buy some ”up-to-date” threads without overtaxing my grandparents, or without having to succumb to the vices of the day—“shooting dice,”
3. During the 1970s, “Little Oklahoma” was a government housing project situated in the section of Bakersfield, California unofficially designated for new arrivals from Oklahoma and East Texas. “Sweet” Lorraine’s family later moved into a house that was once owned and occupied by Jack Johnson (1878-1946), the first African American to win the world heavyweight boxing championship.
4. Cottonwood Road was once “an oasis of forbidden pleasures.” As unscrupulous motorist traveled from Los Angeles to San Francisco (or vice versa), visiting Cottonwood Road became a most popular diversion, stealing watermelon, and running marijuana.
Working as a cotton chopper back then wasn’t nearly half as bad as it sounds: with so little effort required to chop the weeds between the stalks, I honestly believe the farmers only needed us there because of our laughter and our songs: for whenever the unique “sounds of blackness” resonate through a cotton field, or an orchard, or any kind of pasture, a certain type of healing of the land takes place; something very mystical that cannot be rationally described or explained. In any event, not only did we receive our pay on a daily basis; but also, if one possessed a keen and observant ear, one could actually obtain a world-class education in geography, history, and the lessons of human nature. For there was always an individual in the field willing to regale one at length with yarns and life’s stories—colorful stories usually set in Africa, Louisiana, East Texas, Oklahoma, or the Piney Woods of Arkansas. I especially loved the stories of the older folk, when they were children: for they stretched my imagination and nearly all of them were woven with lessons that could be applied to mine own life. Besides, their colorful chronicles always seemed to make the languid days of summer pass more quickly.
One of the stories that I will never forget was one told by Oscar Dean that related the saga of his maternal grandfather, Abraham Lincoln McKnight: According to Dean, “in 1919, McKnight raised twenty bales of cotton in East Texas, worth $3,500. Although the old man swore that he had not purchased more than three hundred dollars worth of merchandise on credit from his landlord that year, he was told at settlement that he still owed fifty dollars. His demand for an itemized accounting earned him only a beating. Still claiming debt of fifty dollars, the landlord seized McKnight’s household goods and drove him off the farm with only the clothes on his back.”
Perchance, the reason I remember that particular June day so vividly is that not only was it the day I first heard “the voice” of God as it uttered on the lower frequencies, it was also the day that Reverend Kelley decided to deviate from his usual habit of having lunch with the older folk and decided to spend “quality time” with me and “Sweet” Lorraine under an old cottonwood tree—the very tree where we shared our first kiss.
At first, we thought perhaps the good reverend was trying to weasel his way toward a piece of my grandmother’s fried chicken or the sweet potato pie she had so lovingly prepared for my lunch—he was always good at that. However, as it turned out, Reverend Kelley was not the least interested in soul food—he was more concerned about my future. As I later discovered, “through the church grapevine,” he had been prompted by my grandparents that day to “talk some sense into me:” hoping that his wisdom might lend my life direction: hoping that he could put to rest forever my “foolish” desire to write.
In truth, Reverend Kelly was well aware that my grandparents held high hopes of me becoming an architect some day: for their intentions had long been known throughout the whole valley—especially among the parishioners of The Heavenly Gate. However, he also knew that I was a “dreamer,” a thinker, who loved the world of books and literature, including the Bible, especially the book of Job.5 Indeed, he knew all too well that I was deeply torn between wanting to please my grandparents and with wanting to be a writer.
5. The Book of Job is the story of a good man who suffers total disaster—he loses all his children and property and is afflicted with a repulsive disease. Then in three series of poetic dialogues the author shows how Job and his friends react to these calamities. In the end, God Himself, whose dealings with the human race have been a prominent part of the discussion, appears to Job. According to English historian, James Anthony Froude, the Book of Job “[is] of unknown date…. and unknown authorship, the language impregnated with strange idioms and strange allusions, un-Jewish in form, and in fiercest hostility with Judaism, it hovers like a meteor over the old Hebrew literature, in it, but not of it, compelling the acknowledgment of itself by its own eternal majesty, yet exerting no influence over the minds of the people, never alluded to, and scarcely ever quoted, till at last the light which it had heralded rose up full over the world in Christianity.”
Now, then, as Reverend Kelley sat down between “Sweet” Lorraine and I, he hardly noticed that she was holding in her hand a copy of Cane; an obscure book of letters written in 1923 by Jean Toomer (1894-1967): a book that consists of stories, poetry, sketches, and drama that inextricably link both the beauty and pain of African American experience: for it was our usual custom to read and discuss passages as we ate our lunch.
Seizing the opportunity, Reverend Kelley interrupted our discussion with a few words of customary small talk: then suddenly, without warning or regard, he let loose with his sermon. On and on, he spoke of the plans and expectations that my grandparent’s had for my life. He even tried to connect my future with the career of Paul Williams, the first black member of the American Institute of Architects. He seemed to take great pleasure in articulating how Mr. Williams, in the 1950s and 1960s, had made millions of dollars designing buildings all over the world and magnificent mansions for stars such as Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, Anthony Quinn, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
To further dissuade me from wanting to pursue a literary career, Reverend Kelley graphically described the demise of certain writers such as Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) and Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849); writers who either succumbed to alcoholism or who committed the “unpardonable sin” of suicide. He also went to great lengths to point out how poor royalties had temporarily forced his childhood idol, Charles W. Chestnutt, 6 to retire from writing while yet in his “creative” prime (he entered the legal profession; but returned to writing four years later). “Had he not done so,” insisted Reverend Kelley, “Chestnutt might have starved to death.”
6. Charles Waddell Chestnutt (1858-1932), is perhaps best known for his Frederick Douglass (1899) and his colorful narratives; including The Conjure Woman (1899), The House Behind the Cedars (1990), The Marrow of Tradition (1901), and The Colonel’s Dream (1905).
In response to Reverend Kelley’s strong appeal, all that I could do was stare blankly at the book “Sweet” Lorraine was grasping—as if gazing into the days ahead. Sensing that he had not yet finished discharging his preachments, I remained in utter silence. “Sweet” Lorraine, however, was not about to let Reverend Kelley off so easily: “Although providence has indeed conspired to be unkind to certain writers,” she briskly retorted, pointing her right index finger squarely in his face, “others, like William Faulkner (1897-1962) and Langston Hughes (1902-1967) enjoyed wonderful careers and led very honorable lives.”
Nevertheless, Reverend Kelley, a notoriously unyielding man, was determined to “set me straight.” For the next ten minutes or so he and “Sweet” Lorraine went at it like proverbial “cats and dogs”—I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. It wasn’t until after I leapt to my feet in a fit of fury and informed the old holy man that although I understood the wisdom of my grandparents, and appreciated his personal concerns, earlier in the day—not more than two hours before—“the voice” of God had descended upon me and had consigned me to write, did he relent.
To be quite candid, after I made my disclosure, it was as if Reverend Kelley had also heard “the voice.” Instead of trying to further persuade me to follow the career path that my grandparents had laid out for me, he was now in full agreement that I should obey the utterances of God and write for His glory. He even spoke as if he had foreknowledge of the despair that might befall me if I chose to ignore my life’s high calling. If I live to be a thousand, I will never forget his words: “Once you begi n on the path to becoming a real writer, come what may, don’t ever leave that wonderful path: lest you be possessed of a broken heart.”
Although still a bit mystified and confused by Reverend Kelley’s sudden change of attitude, I soon felt a great sense of relief. Even as he began to caution me, “that as an African American determined to succeed in the white-dominated field of literature the road to my destiny would undoubtedly be filled with obstacles and obstinate people whose sole delight was to see me fail,” I still felt a strong sense of resolve.
What’s more, though he never actually admitted to ever having heard “the voice” personally, Reverend Kelley confessed that years ago, while a young man living in Texarkana, Texas, he too harbored aspirations of becoming a writer, perhaps a journalist; but after joining the United States Army, during the Korean Conflict, he regrettably lost sight of his ardent dream.
“Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent—which attitude certainly has a great deal to support it. On the other hand, it is only because the world looks on his talent with such a frightening indifference that the artist is compelled to make his talent important. So that any writer, looking back over even so short a span of time as I am here forced to assess, finds that the things which hurt him and the things which helped him cannot be divorced from each other; he could be helped in a certain way only because he was hurt in a certain way; and his help is simply to be enabled to move from one conundrum to the next—one is tempted to say that he moves from one disaster to the next. When one begins looking for influences one finds them by the score. I haven’t thought much about my own, not enough anyway; I hazard that the King James Bible, the rhetoric of the store-front church, something ironic and violent
and perpetually understated in [African American] speech—and something of Dickens’ love for bravura—have something to do with me today; but I wouldn’t stake my life on it. Likewise, innumerable people have helped me in many ways; but finally, I suppose, the difficult (and most rewarding) thing in my life has been the fact that I was born [African American] and was forced, therefore, to effect some kind of truce with reality. (Truce, by the way, is the best one can hope for.)”
Now, then, as Oscar Dean summoned us back to work, Reverend Kelley—a man endowed, so I thought, with no special learning—quickly finished his lunch (a salami sandwich and an Orange Crush soda pop), while fixing his eyes curiously upon the book “Sweet” Lorraine was now grasping to her bosoms then unceremoniously turned his eyes toward me and quoted from Thomas Carlyle: “If a book comes from the heart it will contrive to reach other hearts.” Undeniably, from that moment forward—unless I count the Sunday he had had too much Mogen-David wine during Communion and nearly tipped over The Lord’s Table—I never again looked upon Reverend Kelley in quite the same manner. Never, again did I consider him just an “old country preacher from the backwoods of East Texas;” for in my mind, he had now assumed the manifestation of a patron saint.
Invariably, as the years roll on—even to this very hour—whenever the road to my destiny becomes filled with obstacles, or obstinate people, I stop to consider the poignant words of Reverend Kelley and I can move forward again. This was never more evident than during my first year at Bakersfield College. For, it was then and there—while learning to master my craft in earnest—Professor Stansbury, the ultraconservative faculty advisor of the school’s literary magazine, The Renegade Rip, called me into his office one day and informed me that although I was “a very accomplished writer for my age, and was blessed with a literary style vaguely reminiscent of John Steinbeck (1902-1968); 7 unfortunately, because of the handicap of my race, I would be better served dedicating my energies toward pursuing a career in the culinary arts.”
7. John Ernst Steinbeck was an American novelist and winner of the 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature. He is best known for his novels Of Mice and Men (1937) and Grapes of Wrath (1939).
“What I offer here [in my writing] is not my teaching, but my study; not a lesson for others, but for myself.” —Michel de Montaingne
For me, the craft of writing has never been a laborious or tedious task. Neither has it been a cumbersome exercise or experiment. For long since having come into the realization that words could be fashioned to form weapons, I have sought to master them with all the skill and precision of a well-trained marksman. To be sure, after Professor Stansbury insisted that the “handicap of my race” would forever prevent me from publishing, rather than yield to his wishes to give-up the craft, I used the incident to consciously wage an assault upon all those souls who stood in judgment of my color rather than the merits of my art.
Notwithstanding, this strange alchemy, given my natural propensity of being a peacemaker, to this very day, gives way to elaborate excursions and dalliances into the creative—digressions of which I am admittedly fond. Like the other purpose-driven writers before me—namely W. E. B. DuBois (1868-1963), Richard Wright (1908-1960), Ralph Ellison (1914-1994), and James Baldwin (1924-1987)—I too use my art to give “voice to the voiceless:” and to propagate my faith in the “sacred principles” (truth and love ) that transcends all principles—including those set forth by the Founding Fathers. 8 Even when resigned to fashion my words into weapons to reprimand those who would injure or violate the rights of my people or judge them solely on the merits of their color rather than the content of their moral character, I do so in the spirit of truth and in love.
8. Founding Fathers: the original fifty-six delegates who framed the United States Constitution.
In light of being “a voice for the voiceless,” I realize that it is difficult, almost daunting, to evaluate the quality of my art at a time when literary criteria are in such flux as they are today—this is especially true when one considers the latest debates over cultural validity and the literary canon, and our growing awareness of how ethnocentric values have worked to exclude the African American writers of the past. Yet, for me, writing for the “underdog” is unquestionably my most enjoyable endea vor. Not only does writing for the “voiceless” allow me wide latitude in framing new worlds, it also empowers me with the strength and resolve to reach for unconquerable vistas and dreams previously deferred.
Needless to say, although I understood wholeheartedly the wisdom of Professor Stansbury’s message, I also understood that to be a writer was the only reason that I was thrust forth from my mother’s womb. Without question, had I taken the passive route and succumbed to the will of the good professor, perhaps I probably could have easily created a very comfortable life for my self as a chef or short-order cook; but I doubt seriously if I would have been as happy as I am today. Nor would I have been afforded the freedom and wherewithal to have traveled the breadth of the earth and be befriended by people from all walks of life who demanded nothing more of me than a “harvest” of truth and love.
Having won the battle against conformity, I firmly believe that as an African American writer, I have a dual responsibility: (1) to utilize language, so far as I can, to reveal to the world the ambiguity and irony of African American life; as well as to (2) speak words of hope and sustenance to the hearts of all seeking souls—regardless of race, age, gender, or religion. In discharging this noble obligation, I am acutely aware of the contradictions that may be found in such a “fine” art. Yet, I am supremely confident, that the utility of my art will greatly outweigh any perceived idiosyncrasies or shortcomings.
Finally, in view of my past experiences, both the objectionable ones and the ones that have proved well-pleasing, perhaps the best bit of advice—other than reminding one that a writer’s paramount mission is to reveal to the reader the infinite possibilities of their own soul, of course—that I can possibly offer to anyone who truly aspires to become a writer, a richly rewarding profession that dose not allow one to be brief at the expense of being clear, is simply this: a writer writes—no matter what obstacles or obstinate people may appear on the threshold of one’s path, a writer writes! ■