How We Walk Now
[Published in Black Body Amnesia: Poems & Other Speech Acts by Jaamil Olawale Kosoko, published 2022 by Wendy’s Subway, ISBN 9781735924267']
Image: Ella Jones, Friendship, Arkansas, date unknown
When I was invited to develop a reading group for Jaamil’s project, American Chameleon: The Living Installments, I was given the Syllabus for Peace and it shifted everything. Most notably me. Or, more accurately, it was through the reading of it that I remembered (and healed) my heart-broke body. This remembrance occurred to me all at once while I was scanning the syllabus for instructions. It all happened without my permission. I remembered that I was on a path and still in search of. What kind of syllabus was this?
I am an artist and educator and, as an educator, I write syllabi. It’s my job. I write them to satisfy the institution and to communicate my intentions and expectations to my students. On the first day of class I often say, “This is a binding document, a contract of sorts, between you and me.” Repeating what I have been told against my better judgement, I am performing authority with as many outs/caveats/disclaimers as I can get away with. (Attendance: mandatory. Calendar: subject to change. Requirements: R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Be in class for updates.) I am not sure why this holdover remains but I do have my suspicions.
Syllabus for Peace did none of those things. No rules, no instructions. It only offered openings; places to begin from and dream into. As I scanned the syllabus for a reading to focus on I found myself thinking about The Way Forward is With a Broken Heart, an Alice Walker collection implied therein but not listed. The syllabus had begun to do its work on my body. This was radical pedagogy at its best. As I began to understand the living nature of the project I selected another text by Walker from the list and the Old Lady Comforts Reading Group took shape.
Working from Walker’s 1972 essay, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, I let the writing/writer lead my body forward and backward in time. And, as is common in my broader artistic practice, I looked for the questions and then I called my mother. Speaking the questions back and forth across time, we searched together for our mothers’ gardens. The Old Lady Comforts Reading Group exists because of that conversation and is named after the shoes my Great Grandmother Ella wore when my mother was a child. Mom laughed as she told me about those shoes and described helping her grandmother put them on and lace them up. There was affection in her voice—tethered to that memory—in a tone I had never heard before. I found myself wondering about those shoes and the woman who wore them; how she walked and where. How did they hold her upright? What shape did they take as they bore her life’s weight? What color was the dust that they kicked up all those years ago in Friendship, Arkansas?
I knew then that I wanted to extend this living experience to my imaginary reading group participants. (The way forward is with.) Perhaps my reading group could embody the same openings into that Jaamil’s Syllabus for Peace offered me. Maybe participants would begin to understand peace as a reverberation between body and time too. When we gathered virtually I began by calling our ancestors into the space. We looked at the hard questions Walker posed in the text about race and class and artmaking for enslaved Black women. I shared my mother’s stories, which are also my own. We discussed what our grandmothers taught us about emotional survival in outlandish circumstances. We held up their collective legacies and thought about how they carry us today. Walker’s essay, like Syllabus for Peace, was just a bridge; a place to cross over water together, where we could gather and decide how we walk now.