The Chaos of Being a Teacher; or, How Angel Nafis Saved My Whole Being

Friday was one of the hardest days I have ever had at work.

On the way home from school, several of the girls I teach got jumped by girls from a rival school in the neighborhood, over a dispute that had been unraveling since Tuesday. I can't say I know all the details. I'm not sure that all the details matter. It's a story we all know. Someone felt wronged. Atonement did not come. Violence followed.

During the attack, police officers first stood by, then indiscriminately attacked the kids, both victims and attackers. One of our girls who was jumped was also choked by an officer of the law. A teacher was struck by one of the attacking girls. It was a cool and typical day in Englewood: chaos and tears and a heaviness you can't get from under.

After the melee, I spoke with parents and students who wanted to know just what they were supposed to do beyond what they've already done to ensure their kids' safety, kids who live in a neighborhood everyone has already defined as unworthy and discarded (and yet--so full of light I have to squint my eyes every time I step into a classroom, even on the most overcast days. Nothing in the world more beautiful than these faces, than these stories). We had few answers that comforted. Mostly, we will do what we can.

We teachers stayed very late and made sure the rest of our kids got home. We were ragged, tired, weary. It hurt me that even now, after all that black people in this country have experienced at the hands of those who deemed them worthless, that we still treated each other as such, even as those power structures maintained their disgust for every ghetto face. Every ghetto face somehow the same face, the face of their chaos.

I was broken hearted, and in need of some healing.

Fortunately, one of my absolute favorite poets in the world, Jamila A. Woods was releasing her brand new book. I forewent my body's urge to sleep and decided instead to see her and hear her because she is the kind of poet that can nourish you from the soul out. Anyone who has heard Jamila can attest to this fact.

Unfortunately, by the time I was able to make it to the spot, Jamila's set had just finished. I would only catch the last set of the night. Little did I know, I was about to be blessed beyond my wildest expectations.


I arrived at the venue just as superstar poet Kevin Coval was finishing up an introduction for the other lady of the evening, Angel Nafis. I had heard about Nafis from poet friends like Roger Bonair-Agard and J.W. Basilo. They possessed such lofty admiration for Nafis I should have already known what I was in store for, but (a) those guys are full of love and (b) as a poet myself, I hear grand things about poets all the time, and some of those times, I happen to disagree with all the fuss. It's not that I think I am in any position to judge a poet's overall quality, it's just that certain poets speak to me more than others. Anyhow, suffice to say, I was not prepared for what I was about to experience.

She took the stage and began her first poem. By the time she was finished I was already in a place I have not been since the first time I read "Harlem" by Langston Hughes. Or Rita Dove's "Adolescence II." Or June Jordan's "Poem About My Rights." This poet/griot/conjurer channeled the voices of her people in word and inflection: I heard her father Abdul ("Dul" for short), her sister Dal, her mother Badia who passed away at her birth, her brilliantly complex self. All of it so personal, all of it beyond that. Somehow through each distinct voice blossomed the experience of all people, of that in us that might be called essentially human. Nafis poems were poignantly black, expertly inflected, and utterly, utterly transformative.


The final poem of the book she was selling that night (which I, of course, bought) is called "Conspiracy: A Suite." I will not quote it here (go buy her book to find it), but it essentially examines through personal psychological narrative the treatment of black female bodies in Eurocentric society. It is a very, very painful poem, and agonizingly familiar to anyone who has experienced the underside of the medical establishment's treatment of black women and girls. The first two parts of the poem are poeticized formal communication from the medical establishment to the speaker and to the speaker's sister, both of whom have undergone treatment for misdiagnosed issues.

But in the final section the poem takes a magnificent turn.

*** I am thinking of a 16 year old girl. She is six feet tall; thin; black. She wears glasses most days. Pays attention most days, participates in class, almost always. Laughs with her friends. Comes up with insights. I look at her and I think of my big sister. I remember how, when I was eight and my sister was twelve, she seemed like the tallest, thinnest, most beautiful girl in the world. She walked so fast, with long, thin, confident strides. She knew everything.  I am thinking of my sister as I am standing in a hallway before a thin brown-skinned bespectacled 16 year old girl who is so tall she looks me eye to eye, even now, as she bends, arms in, tears streaming down her face, saying, I don't feel safe.  I think of my sister and this is a heartbreak like I have never known before.


The last part of the last poem on the last page of the book I bought last Friday is as follows:

What God Say to the BlackGirl

Here go roses. Here go cool water. Here go a dark man in a pink tuxedo. Here go a picture of your mom. Here go a joke so good you cry. Here go a window fan and the way the curtain blows. Here go a flock. Here go a tongue on your back. Here go aging. Here go a paycheck with your name spelled right. Here go trees that applaud. Here go what your whole body remember.

I read those lines after all that pain. All the pain visited on all those bodies. On all those bodies black and lithe and beautiful and forgotten and discarded and ignored. I read those lines and, for some reason to which I have no causal access, hope emerges--a hope real and true and unerringly joyful. Hope that such words by such people are still being spoken. Hope that such audacity and such courage exists in this world. I read and I think about those words and I feel strong again.

So I would just like to take the time to thank Angel Nafis for being a conduit for a truth I needed more than she knew. That such poets exist on this planet renew my faith in what humanity can do with what it has been given.


PS- Buy Jamila's or Angel's book. Go to YCA on a Tuesday.