Matthew: My good friend, Chris Emdin, who's also HMH author, I know you know Chris's work.
Matthew: He talks about this notion of basically the goal of education and learning, particularly in this modern context, is about allowing young people to access and show up as their full selves, whoever they are in academic spaces. And it strikes me that you weren't going to let school just be school; you were going to show up in those spaces, and there were going to be opportunities for a broader sense of expression of who you were.
Marc: Absolutely. I mean, I also had dance teachers
who also checked me on my ego, which was very important, because I also
learned not to segregate academic achievement or even cultural
achievement from personal principle. We are affirmed in these spaces,
and maybe because we're affirmed, because we develop this trust in our
mentors and in our educators, we seek to put in proper alignment, high
character achievement with high academic achievement, and these weren't
just spaces where my body or my person were affirmed. These were spaces
of affirmation, where a principle was affirmed or the set of principles
was affirmed. And I think that goes back to, okay, well then what are
the environments that I want to make? We also feel a sense that joy is
centered and access is centered and hierarchy—social, cultural,
academic, intellectual, or otherwise—is not something that we want to
promote, that we actually want to promote these kind of open spaces
where the public imagination gets to thrive.
Matthew: I deliberately did not ask you any
questions about the poem you opened with, because I wanted to wait.
Couldn't help but notice, it was a reflective poem; you talked about
your own internalized versions of these stereotypes that you were
once—likely still are—subject to, but you also practice yourself. Give
us the history, what's the breakdown on that poem, and then I'll let you
finish with one more poem before we let you go.
Marc: I've been thinking about hope a lot. I'm
looking at the view that I've had for most of the pandemic right now.
I've been mostly in the same place. The things that I take into my body,
the things that I take into my visual diet, is a little bit more
limited than it was, let's say in 2018, 2019. So, what are the
aesthetics that we're ingesting and how does that play against our broad
psychology? For many of us, the aesthetics of—and the familiarity
of—the beauty and greatness of the other is not germane to our
day-to-day experience. So, as I was growing up—I said I was the child of
Haitian immigrants—Haiti was, and maybe still is the bottom in terms of
cultural affirmation, certainly in the West Indian community. I learned
from a very early age and for many years afterwards, both by social
experience and also by visual aesthetic and commercial experience, that
it was not cool to be Haitian.
Marc: Many of us learned it is not cool to be
dark-skinned, or it is not cool to be androgynous. We learn from early
ages what is acceptable, what is beautiful, what is lauded. And, in our
commercial culture, the body of a Black male is a contested site. The
body of a Black female is a contested site, and for many different
reasons. But the body of a Black male is a site to be feared, is a—
Matthew: Even for Black people, as your poem indicates.
Marc: Because those are the aesthetics of our
popular culture. I spoke about what I'm taking in right now in the year
2020, in the year 2021. What I grew up taking in wasn't radically
different. And so, when you grow up with that, even among your own,
there's a way that the image of young Black men coming towards me is
very familiar. I went to school at an all-Black, all-male college, it's
not like I don't love Black men, that I haven't learned to love and be
in the company of Black men. But still, there's a psychological seed.
And so now that I have a son, who is now 19 years old, I see him and
his boys rolling, and I'm privy to their laughter. I'm privy to their
joy. I'm privy to the aloof sense of a 19-year-old kid. We remember who
we were as bodies. But I'm also aware that a stranger witnessing the
same act of laughter, who has been programmed because of the aesthetics
of popular culture, might consider that laughter in a more menacing way,
in a more threatening way. And the poem exposes the contradictions
there in the humanity that we do or do not extend to the other, and the
constant work that we have to do whether we're in the demographic group
or not—the constant work that we have to do in order to evolve past
Matthew: Oh, man, this has been fantastic
conversation. I always learn when I sit at the feet of wise people like
you, my friend, and I want to just thank you for sharing your wisdom.
And thank you for all the great work that you're doing and the way in
which you are shaping the future of social impact and leveraging your
art to do it. So, thank you, man. And if you will honor us, I would love
for you to take us out with a little bit of word, as they used to say.
Marc: I know, man. A little bit of word. Matthew
Mugo Fields, it's been an honor man, I've always looked up to you. This
is a proud moment for me to just be in the space with you and to take
our off-camera, off-mic conversations to the people. So, thank you.
Matthew: Yeah, likewise.
Marc: This is a poem from a work called The Just and the Blind.
Seven years ago I was sitting in a shotgun house in 3rd
ward Houston, on the phone with Dr. Michael Connor, asking him if it
was ok if I proposed to his daughter. A few months before that I was
sitting in my bedroom in Oakland, speaking on the phone with my mom who
was in New York, asking her if I could propose to Kanoe with the same
ring my dad used when he proposed. I asked for permission to love…
My last solid cry probably came about 6 months ago when I first
learned about Jamarria Hall. Before he could legally vote, Jamarria was
suing the state of Michigan in federal court. He and a group of students
from Detroit’s worst performing high schools filed a class action
lawsuit in August 2016, alleging that the public school system in
Detroit denies children their constitutional right to literacy under the
Fourteenth Amendment. Incidentally the named defendant in their lawsuit
is the same governor who sits on hella Great Lakes and can’t get water
The idea of a ‘constitutional right to literacy’ broke me open
and exposed to the conflicts of my own civic instincts. A right to language?
Like a right to clean air? Or a right to love?...
How does a Black boy become an American? How does he learn his
role to play? And what if that role, in part, is to stand in his
country’s closet, waiting for someone to imagine him as a monster in the
dark? If I take everything that I love about being Black and everything
that I love about being an American, are those things themselves in a
right or loving relationship? If not some legal charter, who gives us
permission to be our greatest, loving selves…
In love, there is no lack
The coiled tension
Bought in a prism
Theorem of blue
Who am I human if not free
Where do I fit if I cannot roam…Outside myself
I lovingly sing myself, An anthem for quiet grace
In defiance of silence we claim the rite to love… We who make
rage into color, make love into sound. We who see the world as it might
be, and make it irresistible to the reticent, with or without sanction
And if I die for the rite to be love
Should the day come when my light is captured
bury me in the struggle for freedom
Matthew: And it is a beautiful, beautiful struggle, much like your work, my friend. Thank you, man.
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