Mr. Moore: “You play by their rules. When you gone get your own?”
This wacky professor made me jump up and righteously leave his office. This man has lost his natural born mind, why, I’m President of the BSU, I’m a CDF community organizer for the Black Student Leadership network…I am the child of a flower child and radical living in the projects. What do you mean I play by their rules? How dare he? How dare Mr. Steven Moore challenge the well-crafted identity I had shaped and fine-tuned into the Afro-Hemian April. A lover of black people, of gay people and an in between lefty happily content to celebrate kwanza with my jewish boyfriend and yell at the rich white people for not supporting the community center in the projects that were a 10 minute ride from Vassar’s campus…
How dare he challenge this? Well, for one, he knew it was just a stepping stone, not the end. He wanted to argue with me about it so I could question it. But he also wanted me to supercede it. He could see in me what I could not. The ways I kept people at bay, the ways I beat myself up, the way I hold/held onto the rules so I can feel justified in breaking them, the tentative places in me that he sought to expose as my strength, my desire to be accepted which I thought was a terrible weakness, my desire to break out of the limiting definitions I had of myself as a black girl from the projects; my constantly looking for a role model, someone whose steps I could follow…when the key was in learning some new steps, new flexible definitions.
I always said, “Mr. Moore, I gotta learn the rules before I break them.
He said, “You grew up in the projects and been attending all these lofty institutions on scholarship, dammit, you already know the rules and you know how to play them and use them to your advantage. But you not doing that. You’re getting mired in other peoples definitions, shit, even mine.” And I said, “Mr. Moore be quiet, I’m going to write my speech for the opening of the ICC” and tossed my faux kente clothe over my coat. Exit stage left.
Professor Steven Moore passed away this past weekend of sudden, completely unexpected heart failure. The beating heart of my Vassar College experience is gone and I am left standing wondering who and what and where I am. He would say, “You go on and on about this boyfriend and having a career and a family and saving the world doing non profit…She protests too much ’cause that’s not all you want to do. If it was, you would have it, be bored with it and get over it. “ And he was right. I had an expertly constructed rebuff: Mr. Moore, I’m not trying to be all Zora Neal Hurston -writin’-the great shit, traveling to Africa, creating an aesthetic that defined the Harlem Renaissance and rolling with the fierce bisexual aesthetes of the time. I mean I dig Zora, cause she wasn’t trying to sit around with her white middle class patrons discussing how to be a feminist. Zora did what destiny called her to do, to become something new and progressive, a sensual, thinking intellectual, but then she died poor in Florida and no one lauded her work until she was gone. Mr. Moore, I was born poor in Florida, I’m not trying to go out like that. And he said, ” Then make something up and stop trying to do what every other tired, unsatisfied black woman has done…create a new paradigm and for god’s sake, don’t forget how to cook and don’t sit around complaining.” And then he would laugh.
Mr. Moore was this great friend, mentor, father figure and truly the last straight-up, gangsta Vassar intellectual fearlessly claiming a black racial identity that had nothing to do with liking or disliking white folks, but rather an identity that was centered around seeing yourself deeply and being central to your destiny. That while history may play a role, you have a whole new set of cards, stop playing the old deck. “You don’t want to join Jack & Jill, you don’t have to, but you better damn well get Jill or Kiki from the projects and start tutoring her little self…that’s your job.” Office hours were the best.
When I learned of his passing, I turned to my writing station next to my couch. The first edition, hard copy of James’ Baldwin’s “The Price of the Ticket” was there on top of Pema Chodron’s, “Things Fall Apart”. Two books given to me on the same rainy Vassar College afternoon. Mr. Moore handed me the Baldwin tome with fearsome warnings and pointed me to a donation box of books upstairs in the college center and said “Go get you a free book. Quiet.” Those two books have traveled with me everywhere: Africa, Paris, the pig farms of Halifax county, The White House and to my great grandmothers bedroom altar. To remind me, that it took 10 years and lots of travel for me to get what Mr. Moore was trying to tell me.
I read the inscription and all of his notes in the “Price of the Ticket” and then I remember. Every underlined piece of text was a discovery he made during his youth. He was trying to get me to go beyond where he went and I’m just now getting there. He said, “At some point, the student ceases to be a consumer of knowledge and becomes a producer of knowledge…why you stalling?” Two days later, he calls me at midnight and says, “I can’t make it back to Campus, call this number and do this interview for me. It’s for some Jazz magazine.” And then he hung up before I could ask, who/what/when/where….The next day he leaves a garbled message on my dorm room machine. “Oh, by the way, it’s Betty Carter, I need 2400 words typed, proofed and publisher ready in two days. And then he hung up.
I will leave to your imaginings the look on my little brown face. I couldn’t speak. I walked to the Library and listened to the same songs my dad played all my life. She was playing a very special concert with Wynton Marsalis at Lincoln Center that coming weekend. It was to become an album. She agreed to the interview because she was tight with Mr. Moore. Needless to say, she was less than enthusiastic with my silly line of questioning and within two minutes had cussed me out, cussed out Mr. Moore for sending my ill-informed little self to do this interview. I sat dumbstruck with my recorder and then remembered my conversations with Mr. Moore about the Modern Jazz Quartet, Dizzy’s Cuban moment and what I loved about the music and I asked her, “What makes it sing? How do you find the note inside, let it split and then put it back together with 18 more layers on it? She was quiet. She said, “What you know about that?” And then Betty Carter told me how a jazz musician is born.
Mr. Moore read the article, published it and 4 months later as I handed him my thesis on James Baldwin, he said. You know that was brillant, right? I said in my usual, I’m-about-to-disagree-with-you-Mr. Moore-voice, “You haven’t even read it, what are you talking about?” He said, “Naw, I’m talking about the Betty interview. You got something there, you know how to write and better yet, you know how to hear.”
I didn’t understand him until I received notice of his death a few days ago. And I wept. For him, for my life, for the storm. It was a flood of tears. Good tears, whole tears. When I introduced my family to him graduation weekend, he pulled me aside and handed me my thesis with his notes. And he looked me in the eye and said, Ima tell your Daddy.” And I, with the full weight of my neurotic self, said, “Mr. Moore, don’t start. What are you talking about?
He got really serious and solemn like the corner pimp dropping science and said: “You linked together disparate ideas in this thesis across disciplines; drawing historical movements and politics into play. You know how philosophy becomes action and you know how to write in a way that people can hear it and that’s why you been bored and wearing these teachers out. You cuss people out with this magnificent poetry that’s smart…. it’s aggressive, masculine and carries the weight of right. But then you all cute, like you don’t what you did. Even I didn’t know you could take a hold of something like that. You listen and you wait for it to come to you and then put it down on the paper like you’re receiving a message from the subconscious or history or whatever. And you don’t even know you do it. Look atchu. You don’t even know what you did and I’m telling you….”
And then he walked off to drink with my Dad. LOL
Over a decade later, I began writing as if I was listening to old spirits talk to me. My first play was my Mom & Dad talking talking ferociously about their beliefs, politics and dreams. The second play was much harder because it’s about ghosts of another time who made me. I feel them everywhere, but I couldn’t write this second play for the life of me. Until, I returned to my home: Miami. I walked the streets they walked. Listened to the Geechies tell porch stories by moonlight. Ate pasteles and cuban coffee on a hot Calle Ocho corner where las viejas whispered the secrets of the Palo and pointed me to the underground railroad way out in Biscayne Bay where Miami swamps held runaway slaves. They told me, “Go by the sea where it happened and the dead will tell you their stories, “Este es el palo” and I did. I went to the South Florida Black Archives and saw my date of birth and elementary school graduation listed and found a picture of my great grandmother’s little house in Good Bread Alley, but this picture was from almost a century ago. Lord, the archivist had to get me some tissue so I wouldn’t cry on the source materials. And finally, the archivists, the secretary and the cleaning lady came into the little study and said. “Now: You our archivist. Gone and tell them we were here and what we did.”
And I went to my computer, opened the windows to a glorious Miami night and listened. Mi Bis Abuela told me stories until the Sun rose over Biscayne Bay. The next day, I don’t even remember writing it, but I can hear her and my people walking and talking and singing and I remember that I simply learned how to listen. I wrote “Good Bread Alley” in one night. Mil Gracias, Mi Celia.
Mr. Moore could see far beyond what I could ever imagine for myself. He gave me this incredible tool. He simply, but deeply observed, what my soul was trying to say and pointed it out to me in a language I could understand, even if I didn’t know how to do it: “You know how to hear, you know how to listen and make it make sense.”
His gift was his ability to see and set me to a task. A task that would dig deep into my hope chest and allow my gifts to sing.
Professor Steven Moore: I see. I see you. I miss you.