Story by C. J. Laity
Based on an interview with Quraysh Ali Lansana
Birth of a Child
Enid, Oklahoma. Former Wheat Capital of the World. Birthplace of Owen K. Garriott: one of the original Apollo astronauts.
On September 13, 1964, Quraysh Ali Lansana was born Ron Myles, the African American great grandson of a full blooded Tsalagi Cherokee. Sixth child. Youngest child. Second boy. Not completely on his parents' agenda, in a crowded two-story house in a culturally diverse, working class neighborhood in Enid.
Five months later. Three gunmen would rush the stage at the Audubon Ballroom and shoot Malcolm X fifteen times. Three years later. Martin Luther King Jr. would step onto the balcony of the Motel Lorraine. Such was the air of Ron's childhood environment, in a home shared by politically active older siblings.
Enid. The hometown where Ron had to change schools at grade six, because Roosevelt Elementary was shut down due to desegregation. The soil was bountiful. Oklahomies were showing the East a collective middle finger. John Denver was hoarding petrol for his Pinto. And Ron's sister was leading Black student walkouts and protest rallies.
Later in life, Ron Myles, in his Polo shirt, thrift store suit, and Chuck Taylor shoes, would be known as the "Dear Abby" of Enid High. He was popular, especially among the politically adventurous white kids. During those wild days, filled with the music of Madness, the English Beat, the Clash, and Van Halen, Ron secretly struggled with issues of his own identity. He struggled with issues regarding his own father, who was not a very positive influence during Ron's childhood. Ron shared these struggles with no one. Instead, he wrote. Mostly a sports column for the school newspaper, which earned him recognition as the State High School Sports Columnist of the year. And he edited a page of student news from the local elementary schools for the town newspaper. It was also within these struggles that the seed of poetry sprouted within him.
In Enid. Adolescent home of NBA All-Star Mark Price.
Senior year of high school. Ron versus Mark Price, the blacktop came alive. Ron hung on to the letters H-O-R-S like a stack of trophies. He threw the shot. It whispered through the net.
Birth of a Name
In 1992, "Brother" Ron Myles converted wholly to Islam. He embraced Islam out of a need for faith, hope and discipline, three things it achieved for him in his life.
On May 1, 1992, buildings in Los Angeles were still smoking from the exploding streets after police were acquitted of the beating of Rodney King. Ron Myles stretched out on his bed, a mattress on a platform in the middle of the main room in the downtown Chicago loft space he shared with Yusef Shabazz, the drummer for the poetry band The Funky Wordsmyths. Ron felt as if he was floating in space, as if he was the huge dark that filled the room. Through the window, he could see the South side skyline bleeding.
He had been studying Sunni Islam since 1991, and on that night he turned to the Quran. After praying and meditating, Ron came across the surah of the Quraysh. The Qurayshi. Part of the blood family of the Prophet Muhammad. Caretakers of the Ka' Ba. It was on that night, the young, idealistic man known as "Brother" Ron Myles, deeply immersed in faith and politics, adorned himself Quraysh. And Ali, which means "The Greatest."
On July 25, 1996, as Quraysh wed his beloved Emily, Cheif Khalilu of Moselolo, their Yoruba babalawo (priest), bestowed the name Lansana upon the two of them. Lansana. From the Mende language of central West Africa, the Sierre Leone area. Lansana. "Storyteller."
The name change was spiritual. Political. It was a method of self-definition and preservation. It freed Quraysh from the shackles of western hegemony.
But there would come a time in his life when even Islam would become an issue of identity for Quraysh. As he matured, he found the jihads in ancient Africa harder to wrap his head around. He observed faithfully until 1997, then he decided to stop observing the tenets of Islam. Though he no longer refers to himself as Muslim, the reasons why he changed his name are as profound for him today as they were in the early 90’s, and Islam continues to be a great part of how Quraysh sees and moves through the world
Birth of a Poet
Chicago, 1989. With two suitcases, a folder full of poems, and $25 in his pocket, Quraysh abandoned Enid and moved in with his long lost fellow prank partner, SKA boy and former University of Oklahoma roommate, comedian Tom Booker of Annoyance Theater. Quraysh had called Tom that September to tell him he was coming to Chicago, and as he walked in the door with everything he owned, Tom realized that he meant for good.
Quraysh squatted on Tom's couch for an entire month. But then he quickly moved on, to share quarters with two young punk rock women. He was beginning to feel a sense of family in Chicago. After landing a temp job at a document sweatshop, which turned full-time after five months, Quraysh put a deposit on a roach infested studio on Cornelia Street in Wrigleyville, and he moved in. He was getting into the groove of the Windy City. He wrote poems. Attended countless concerts. Met other artists. And he decided the roaches had to go. He broke his lease and moved to Wicker Park, a run down neighborhood swamped by poetry readings, a neighborhood which, in only a matter of years, would be transformed by merciless gentrification.
It took him a year of searching Chi-town, but Quraysh, at the time a skinny young man often seen wearing a colorful African fez, finally found himself at the Wholesome Roc Café one evening, where he met Andrea Change, his first guide into the Chicago Poetry Scene. Next he discovered a bar on the corner of Damen, Milwaukee and North, called Borderline, where a man named Jose Chavez offered Quraysh his first featured poetry reading in 1991. He had finally found a family within which he was definitely "on the agenda." Tony "the Fly" Aguilar. Sandra Frank Mosenson. Gregorio Gomez. Bill Smart. It was a vibrant scene full of loving people. He found he could enhance his poetry by exploring performance work, and he joined ranks with Steven Ivich at the Society for New Things. And then came a poetry reading at Estelle's, a reading that would change his fragile world as he knew it. It was there that a man took to the stage and read a poem about the Will Rogers Turnpike, which is a lonely stretch of Oklahoma interstate. The man's name was Christopher Stewart. The two of them connected immediately, and their grip was deep, remaining to this day the best of friends.
In 1991, Quraysh met poet Michael Warr in the Flat Iron Building, where Quraysh was helping to sell designer jewelry during a holiday market. At the time, Michael was something mythic to Quraysh. So many people sang his praises. In the world of Chicago poetry, Michael was the person to know, it seemed, but Quraysh was so in awe of him that when he came to the table to look at the jewelry, Quraysh couldn't get word one out of his mouth. It wasn't until much later, when Quraysh landed a feature at the lookingglass theater, that he finally introduced himself to Michael Warr, and they've been soul brothers and co-conspirators ever since.
During those years, Quraysh also studied Kuntu Drama, a ritual of the Bantu people of Rwanda that joins the word, rhythm and movement in a celebration of beauty and laughter. The synthesis of the ancient ritual stresses that the audience is as participatory as the performers are. The materialization of this concept into a poetry group called Brothers in Verse proved to Chicago that Quraysh was no small player in the poetry scene. Together with such poets as Joffre Stewart, Bill Smart, Jim Banks, Zach Brown, and his good friend Brian Spivey, Quraysh and Brothers In Verse packed the venue known as the Firehouse, an actual ex-fire-station run by the host of Weeds, Gregorio Gomez.
Undoubtedly, the Guild Complex held the biggest role in Quraysh's growth as a writer, teacher and administrator. The Guild Complex, in its many forms, was where many of Quraysh's most lasting bonds were forged. And where many aesthetic influences were ascertained. Not only did the Guild Complex help to shape Quraysh, but Quraysh helped to shape the Guild Complex. The Guild Complex extended for him his growing family among the poets of Chicago. Luis Rodriguez. Reginald Gibbons. Patricia Smith. Kurt Heintz. People he considers part of who he is.
Quraysh is also known for his work with The Funky Wordsmyths, a poetry group that was born at a venue called Spices. Spices was a poetry scene in and of itself, one of the only all Black poetry venues of the time. It was where the movie Love Jones was shot. And it was where Quraysh would meet his future wife, Emily. Quraysh spent nearly every Monday night over two years at Spices. They were magical times. The Wordsmyths emerged out of Spices to perform at just about every poetry venue in town.
One day Poet Regie Gibson and Quraysh paid a visit to Third World Press Bookstore, which was also known as the Institute of Positive Education, in order to breath the same air as Baba Haki Madhubuti. One of the goals in Quraysh's life was to be like Haki. A builder of positive reality. Little did Quraysh know at the time that, later in life, after a great deal of growing, he would become an important energy in Haki's life as well.
Birth of a Man
"Do me a favor," Michael Warr asked Quraysh.
"Pick up Gwendolyn Brooks and bring her to the Guild Complex for her reading."
Gwendolyn Brooks?! During her life, Gwendolyn Brooks established a reputation as a renowned poet and person, whose commitment to the humanities and international stature defined her as an eminent literary figure. Brooks published over 25 books, including poetry, a novel, two autobiographies, and an anthology. Among her numerous publications, her second collection, Annie Allen (1949), won her the Pulitzer Prize, making her the first Black writer ever to win the prize. She was a role model for Quraysh and millions of other Black men.
Quraysh removed his jaw from the floor and agreed to do the favor.
Upon picking her up, Ms. Brooks sternly refused to sit in the front seat of Quraysh's Ford Mustang, so it was in the back seat that a decade-long mentorship would begin. From that day forward, Ms. Brooks would become Quraysh's editor. His guide. His Confidant. His friend. She even walked him to Chicago State University and demanded that he complete his BA.
In 1997, Quraysh sat with eleven other students in the final semester-long poetry workshop Gwendolyn Brooks was to teach. During that time, Ms. Brooks personally helped Quraysh with his MFA applications.
In April of 2000, Quraysh was accepted into New York University, the more traditional and conservative of the programs he had applied to. Sharon Olds and Galway Kinnell were especially moved by Lansana's work. Thanks to them, Quraysh was offered a fellowship, which was the only way it was feasible to attend. In August of that year, Quraysh took a photo of Gwendolyn Brooks with his wife, Emily, and his sons, Nile and Onam, the day before the four of them left for New York. It was the last time they saw Gwendolyn Brooks alive.
Quraysh was seated next to Mayor Daley at Gwendolyn Brooks' funeral. He was able to maintain a degree of composure while eulogizing Ms. Brooks, but when it came time to leave the stage and join the other pallbearers, Quraysh began to unravel. As he joined the line of men and sidled next to the casket, it dawned on him that Gwendolyn Brooks was inside it. And it dawned on him that at the same time, she wasn't inside the casket at all. As he grasped the handle and helped to lift her physical remains, he began to sob. He could feel her spirit fill the room. He was carrying the giant spirit who had carried him for a decade. A blizzard was raging outside on that cold, winter day. And a blizzard of tears raged inside as well. Quraysh held her up, carried her down the isle, through the huge doors, and into the blizzard of her memory.
Back In 1990, Haki R. Madhubuti (a.k.a. poet Don L. Lee), a professor of English and publisher of Third World Press, envisioned the creation the Gwendolyn Brooks Center at Chicago State University. As a close friend of Ms. Brooks from the 1960s, and publisher of her anthology Blacks, Haki understood the critical need to establish a place of honor in recognition of Ms. Brooks’ many achievements. The Gwendolyn Brooks Center became a literary and cultural center invested in researching, preserving, and disseminating information about acclaimed Black writers, especially the life and works of Gwendolyn Brooks, the poet laureate of Illinois.
After earning a MFA in Creative Writing-Poetry, Quraysh came home from New York to Chicago in August of 2002 to sit in the Gwendolyn Brooks Center. Groomed for the position by Ms. Brooks herself, Quraysh felt at home there.
Returning to Chicago added five years to Quraysh's longevity. New York City required a great deal of his energy--just to maintain. Quraysh grew to love New York, but Emily did not. She found New York a tough place to live, unless you’re single, childless or filthy rich. The Lansanas were none of the above. With a strong Chicago work ethic they succeeded in New York. But both agreed, Chicago is a healthier place to live and write.
During the years before and after his New York life, Lansana would become one of the most important forces behind the Gwendolyn Brooks Center. His work would involve tons of fundraising. He helped program a major conference and a festival. And he worked with a three-person staff and five interns, supervising the editorial and production phases of Warpland: A Journal of Black Literature, as well as Ideas, their annual publication. Quraysh is credited with building links between CSU and the Greater Chicago community. He still sits in the center today, feeling at home. His goal? For the Brooks Center to aid in the destruction of the invisible wall that divides matriculated students and community members.
Presently, the Brooks Center is in the process of sustaining a visiting writers series. They hosted two such events in 2003, with Willie Perdomo in October and Thomas Sayers Ellis and Honoree Fanone Jeffers in November. Battling a lack of funding, the center continues with as much programming as possible, including a free workshop series. In 2003, Michael Warr conducted a Submissions and Book Contract workshop. And Lansana led a symposium on preparing writers to teach in the K-12 classroom.
The Black Writers' Conference was born in 1990, the same year that Prof. Madhubuti created the Center. Every year it is a mammoth undertaking, with up to 40 invited writers, only 10-15 of which are from the Chicago area. Quraysh has been a part of the conference since 1996, helping to sustain and develop the largest and longest running Black writers' conference in the country. They began to prepare for the 2004 conference in November 2003, just weeks after the conclusion of the '03 conference.
Most people who know Quraysh would say he is still carrying that giant spirit and has never let it down.
Birth of a Book
At some point in his life, Quraysh realized the marriage of literature, politics and educating youth was his reason for being. Teaching became the only vocation he enjoyed as much as writing. So Quraysh spent a decade as an artist in residence in the Chicago Public Schools. In his K-12 teaching, he incorporated performance of literature as a point of entry and as a method of immersion. Wearing the words, as it were. He used literature as a vehicle to teach many subjects. He found the ideas and phrases that fell from his students' lips extraordinary.
Later, as a university professor, he appreciated even more the openness and uninhibited creativity of K-12 students. Some of his adult students came with narrow minds and perceived grandeur. Quraysh was living by something Reginald Gibbons once told him during a Guild Complex workshop, that "artists, just like athletes, need to stretch." Minds and pens must always be searching, willing to explore other forms and approaches. Quraysh adopted a James Tate mindset: he never wanted to write the same book twice.
On a Spring day in 2000, family member, storyteller, and educator Zahra Baker and Quraysh were discussing her lesson plans for an upcoming class. She brought up the incident that led to Underground Railroad legend Harriet Tubman’s “blackness” or narcolepsy. Lansana was taken by the idea that Harriet Tubman led over 300 Africans from Maryland to Philly or even to Canada, with the possibility of passing out at any time for any length of time. Zahra and Lansana theorized that Harriet received her direction and her wisdom from ancestors and the Creator, when unconscious. Lansana went home marinating in this thought: What if he was a boy in a party of fugitives with Ms. Tubman, and all of sudden she blacked out? The following was the ink Quraysh put to the paper:
my lord she gone
again we's in de middle
of pitch black sky
moon see us only
we pray starin back
from de murky river
thirteen of us i think
nigga runaways crossin
wide water wid no ripple
all cold an shiver
she gone again my lord
why here aint de red sea
where she go when she go
Lansana began to immerse himself in information on Harriet Tubman. He discovered that, at the time, only two adult biographies of her work existed: one written in 1865 as a fundraiser, and the other in 1943, by a former resident of Auburn, NY, the town where she settled and made transition. There were, however, hundreds of fictionalized accounts and young adult biographies, all of which lacked hard facts.
Quraysh dove right in, researching and studying the life of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad for a new book of poetry. The move from the urban and childhood focus of Southside Rain, his previous book, to the Tubman manuscript was a challenge. He wanted to remove himself from any overt presence in his work for a while. He’d been writing poetry for ten years before he included a personal pronoun, thanks to journalist training. But since much of his early work was biographical in nature (based on his childhood or on the world as he saw it), he simply wanted to explore something different.
The major challenge with the new book involved dialect and authenticity. Lansana studied the vernacular work of Hughes, Sterling Brown, Dunbar, even Zora Neale Hurston. He listened to recordings of slave narratives, and read countless books in dialect. In addition, he studied as much as he could about Harriet Tubman: her inability to read and write; her fluent knowledge of the Bible; her otherworldly relationship with Jesus; her Ashanti roots; her many well-known quotes. Then, with all of that, Lansana finally listened to the music he heard within, allowing all of that information, all of those ideas, to swim around inside of him. He applied the rules of prosody to a borrowed tongue.
Studying at NYU at the feet of Phil Levine, Mark Doty, and Marie Ponsot, writers who added innovations that make them invaluable in contemporary American poetry, but who all write a fairly traditional narrative, Quraysh realized his work is not always linear. He had always experimented. Always approached every poem with openness.
The most challenging and rewarding semester workshop Lansana experienced was with Phil Levine. Levine was determined to make Lansana add narrative, linear poems to the Harriet Tubman manuscript. He suggested the book needed these “set-up poems” to aid the contextual applications of the shorter, interior landscape persona poems. Quraysh resisted, arguing that Levine was failing to give the poems a chance to stand on their own merits. In the end, however, Quraysh resolved to admit that they were both correct. He created a few prose poems, adding depth to the manuscript. However, perhaps because of Quraysh's cantankerousness, most of the prose poems were written after graduation.
Quraysh Ali Lansana's new book, They Shall Run—Harriet Tubman Poems, has been released by Third World Press.
Quraysh's wife, Emily, recently gave birth to their third child.
--C. J. Laity
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Note: C. J. Laity explores the life of Chicago Poet Quraysh Ali Lansana in this story based on an interview with the poet.