Category Archives: Social Justice

How to Write the Truth: I’m Still Learning

Toni_1 - Copy-tifThe little girl in me wanted to write. Sleep in my eyes, teeth unbrushed and pillow imprints still on my face, I wanted to write but I couldn’t bring myself to sit with the word. Sometimes your heart wants to tell stories that are not yet meant to be told. Sometimes your words want to scream and holler in a way that your voice just doesn’t seem to support in this moment. This path of vulnerability that I have chosen and committed to pushes me to the edge of dealing with my stuff on a constant bases. There is no comfort zone except for the reality of knowing some of this self expression will stay safely filed away on my hard drive until I am ready.

I mean, I wanted to dive deep into the waters of friendship and sisterhood. There is the friendship with the woman who scheduled get togethers with me 9 times and 7 of those times didn’t even bother canceling. I released the relationship. Somehow in her mind she is a victim of something but I cannot figure out what. I made a few attempts at the Landmark style completion conversation then surrendered when I realized she wasn’t here for it. Of course, I could’ve, should’ve spoken to it after the third time but was still in a space of providing more compassion for others than for I did for myself. My time is valuable too – – yada, yada, yada. Some call it sucka shit but we all go through things. There is the friend I miss but her envy scared the hell out of me and the friend who was so judgmental that it felt like a toxic boyfriend. So these experiences inspired one of my most frequent chants of the year. It’s the affirmation: I let it go, I let it all go. I take full accountability for all that has transpired and I let it go.

Part of me would also enjoy the release of being completely naked and transparent about love, love relationships and matters of the heart but then we have to deal with how that impacts others, projects, business and image. One of my friends constantly reminds me to be mindful of my brand and intention. As a poet first and as a poet whose first pieces at 8 years old were rooted in calls for justice, fairness and truth, this part of adulthood feels completely wack. Why can’t we all just have an authentic conversation and confront these issues that plague so many of our lives? Oh, if only it was as simple as a conversation.

One of the most challenging issues is the one of a cousin who is bi-sexual and in a same-sex marriage. Some of the responses of family, God fearing, God loving, practicing Christian family members, constantly disappoints me. My heart has been broken more times than I can count. I sit quietly. I pray on it. I try not to lament on the absence of my grandma and grandpa from this earthly plane. I know how different our lives would be if they were still here. Then I remind myself and little Toni that there is no time machine and my dreaming will not bring them back to the physical. So I speak to them while on my knees and while in the shower as the water hides my tears I chant again: I let it go, I let it all go.

In my dreams, I am confident enough to tackle the most personal and painful of experiences with creativity, spiritual maturity and transparency but I’m not where I want to be just yet. This is still just an activity in my mind. Years ago I remember sitting in the African American Resource Center with E. Ethelbert Miller.  He was at his desk handing me a stack of poems marked up with red pen. There were 30 pages of text and at least 25 pieces, but he gave me five that he considered to be good poems. I suddenly realized I was far from the book I planned on publishing that semester. He watched both my ego and heart deflate right before his eyes as I sunk into the old wooden chair. Poet Carolyn M Rodgers Name

He began talking about a list of writers I should read as he set up a seat for me at a table with a stack of books with everything from Carolyn Rogers and early Don L. Lee to Alice Walker’s prose and Larry Neal’s critiques. There were journals from the Black Arts Movement and the Harlem Renaissance. As I stood up I could hear the big clock outside and see students scurrying across the yard below.  I remember many things Ethelbert taught me over the years but that afternoon he talked about the need for courage.  It takes courage to expose oneself.  Exposing your joy and your pain, your most sentimental feelings, your family stories – both the good and the bad, the struggles of life, the weaknesses and the strengths are all a part of the nakedness of being a writer. You may find a formula to become a popular writer but great writers are willing and able to write themselves naked and fully exposed on the page.

I can still inhale and smell the scent of old paper and books in the stacks of Founders library at Howard University. I also clearly remember how heavy my spirt was during those years. Ethelbert was a guardian angel to many of us. I am much lighter now and authentically happy, but I am still struggling to be a great writer. I am still learning how to write the truth, my truth. The blog format is like a gym to work out and build my muscles. Every once in a while I get on the scale to see where I’m at and today is one of those days. Three bomb ass writing prompts came to mind and I punked out on each one. I’m here laughing at myself as a way to not slip into the Virgodom of self-critique and thoughts of I-am-not-good-enough. Pressing publish on this post will serve as this morning’s creative accomplishment and thumbs up to an exercise completed. May your day be equally as blessed.





Waking with the Sun

IMG_3213Last night before going to bed I googled to see what time the sun was going to rise. I was contemplating an early morning beach meditation but remembered I had a list of things to do to prep for my cleanse. Of course, the seed for sunrise waking had been planted in my subconscious so something nudged me at 4:54am even though I resisted the tap on my soul’s shoulder.

I fell asleep with the fan pointing directly at me and that usually leads to me rolling over feeling dehydrated at some point during the night. Finding my water bottle meant opening my eyes and stretching my arm to reach for it. Not quite ready to rise, I repositioned myself for more sleep. My mind, however, had already begun etching a poem in the sky.   Two things were clear: 1) my mind wanted to write and 2) my heart wanted to watch the sun come up.

Sleepy, I reminded myself that it’s Sunday and I can nap without guilt. I also remembered that the market opens at 7am so it’s possible to finish all of my errands by 10am. I like the sound of that. Anyway, in the Ayurvedic tradition they say we should wake before the sun rise so we can synchronize with the rhythm of the sun and that it leads to better physical and cognitive function.

As an on again, off again lover of both the late night and the early morning, getting my inner 3 year old to go to bed by 10pm is like trying to get an actual 3 year old to go the heck to sleep. On some days I am so happy and creatively inspired that my energy bubbles like water in a teapot on the verge of boiling. Then there are days where there is so much to do, plan and prep for that stopping the work flow requires a set of rituals. My wake up time always seems to be in flux. Sleeping in is often necessary for me to be able to have a productive day, but today is not one of those days so we shall carry on.

I grabbed my liter bottle from the kitchen, made my cayenne/lemon daily detox drink, lit a white candle, burned one of the good incense sticks and opened both curtains wide. I started writing. It was still dark outside but the sky gradually became lighter and brighter.

The trauma that recent current events have caused is real. Sandra Bland was laid to rest yesterday but she is alive in my heart and mind. Feeling frustrated, hurt and angry about her arrest and death, I caught myself before I slipped into a low-funk. I made an energy shift, which elevated my emotional response. I keep remembering this line from a Lauryn Hill song – I was hopeless now I’m on Hope Road. Embracing my personal power and that of my various communities has been spiritually empowering.

Watching this morning’s sunrise functioned as a prayer. It is a prayer of rebirth. Today is yet another new beginning. There are a number of ways rising early can impact work life and your habits but I’m really focused on the spiritual benefits which include the following:

  • The quiet, noiseless early morning means the mind is free. There is more room for clutter free thought. Our mind can access solutions to problems with greater ease and ponder decisions without distractions.
  • It gives us an opportunity to practice what coach Cheryl Richardson called the art of extreme self care. It can actually be viewed as a gift to self. You can create a ritual whether it’s lighting a candle, aromatherapy and/or making a special tea.
  • Some of our best ideas hit us in that space where we are awake but not fully alert so the creativity can really flow.
  • It increases your peace of mind because you have more mental organization around your priorities, self-care and responsibilities.
  • Meditating before the noise begins while all is still quiet is extremely powerful.

Yes, I know that we have to go to bed earlier if we are going to wake with the sun. Yours truly will have to practice bed time to get to that point, but for now I am giving myself permission to enjoy the early morning and to take in the sunrise every chance a get.

bright sun

The Cypher: We Can Use Hip Hop to Prevent Violence

As I read this morning’s headlines I am neither shocked nor disgusted. I am sad, I am hurt but I am not surprised. Between the newscasters who said that rap songs caused slavery, Don Lemon defending the mom of one of the racist fraternity chanters in Oklahoma and the people recording a brutal beating of a teenage girl instead of intervening, I feel like we are living in a Boondocks episode. Someone put me in touch with Dave Chappelle because this stuff needs proper analysis and it’s so raw we need to laugh while we break it down. We need  to laugh to keep from crying.

Dave Chapelle

Over the past two years I’ve been diligently working to get my affairs in order and organize the vision for my life’s work. It has not been easy. After 20 years of facilitating cyphers and cypher workshops I started doing cypher trainings on how to lead nuanced cyphers that create space for transformation. In the wake of the political uprisings this work is too often seen as “soft” and not “real” activism, but I stayed committed to it because it is my ministry, the cypher is my purpose.

The cypher is a circle of sharing. In my new book, Wisdom of the Cypher, I define cypher as representing 360 degrees. It is completion of thought, the continuum, the giving and exchanging of energy, information and ideas. Whenever you see a gathering of artists in a circle or semi-circle formation, whether they are rapping, dancing, telling stories or sharing the spoken word, you are witnessing a cypher.

I proposed a focus on the cypher in two of my residencies this year but it gets inserted into larger programs because administrators and decision makers don’t get that the cypher is its own program. The cypher as I present it deserves its own platform because both youth and adults need a safe space to express themselves from their core.

My cyphers are disguised as freestyle rap, improvisational poetry and impromptu speaking workshops but are really spaces for people to release stress, confront fear and self-doubt, improve critical thinking skills, build vocabulary and confidence, heighten access to creativity and learn to think on their feet. The cypher helps us to build community while providing leaderships development and transformation.

Unable to secure the proper funding, I currently host cyphers out of my home or the home of my partner. We know that the cypher is a sacred space. We know that the best intervention is prevention. We know that as much as we complain about technology, emotional detachment and the lack of human interaction people have nowadays, that we are still human and deep down we long for moments of connection. The cypher reminds us of this need.

Akua Soadwa, founder of the Sista2Sista Summit, reached out to me this morning. Her online comments about the teenage girls fighting and what we need to do to help our youth inspired my commentary. She said that young people are dealing with spiritual warfare and that hurt youth without the right resources and support become angry, uncontrollable youth. Violence happens when people are not able to say what they want to say so they act out physically.

Prevention is some of the best intervention.

Prevention is some of the best intervention.

Of course, I am waiting for one of the newscasters to blame the melee at McDonald’s on a rap song. I’m sure that will happen at some point today, but these are the folks that know very little about Hip Hop music and culture. Part of me gets it. Hip Hop still has a stigma and when educated people formulate opinions about it based solely on mainstream media then ignorance will pervade, but I know the richness, the beauty and the spiritual consciousness that Hip Hop provides millions of people around the world. I also know how many lives it has changed and saved. This is why I am promoting the cypher, a concept my work borrows from Hip Hop culture, but is universal and relates to the human experience.


Can Hot Cocoa & Pancakes Help Me Process Amiri Baraka’s Passing


Immediately after hearing the news of Amiri Baraka’s passing, I made hot chocolate under the guise of sharing it with my mentee who was here working with me.  The kitchen counter was full of vegetables that I pulled out to juice but I  instead chose to make hot chocolate.  As the almond milk warmed and I put the unsweetened cocoa powder into the mugs, I noticed how I was feeling.  I recently met with Dr. Akilah, a naturopath and energy healer out of Atlanta, and ever since I’ve been really present to how I am feeling and how that impacts my behavior and choices. The hot cocoa was a reach for comfort. I have not made hot chocolate in 3 years. I avoid sweet drinks at home opting for either a water mixture, fresh juice or medicinal tea.

Earlier in the day –after the police stopped me a block from home for not having my seatbelt on and gave me a ticket–I ate cassava, callaloo and saltfish–comfort food. I’ve also eaten popcorn—something else I don’t do often but it reminds me of Auntie Jennifer’s house. She absolutely loved eating popcorn.  My mind was uplifted for a while but came right back  to reality. Sigh. I had gotten over the unexpected expense of tickets, I got one yesterday as well, and the needed car inspection, but reading about Amiri Baraka’s death left me shook.  One of my brothers in poetry, Brian Gilmore, who was a huge influence on my development as an artist in my early to mid-twenties, posted that he was going to make cornbread to get his mind off things. Now, I am sitting here wondering what else I can make, but will make my vegetable juice to stay in solidarity with my health plan. I didn’t eat enough callaloo to make the nutrients count.

Then I tried  to sit with google chromebook on Facebook, LIKING each of the status posts about Amiri’s passing.  However, there were too many in my newsfeed and it didn’t feel like I was honoring his life, but passing the time because I did not know what to do with this grief.

Where do we place this grief? Tell me where to put it.  There is no container for it.  The past few months began with a grief moment every other week but since early December the pace has quickened to a weekly grieving schedule. Tuesdays are my studio day, Saturdays I go to hot yoga community class at Sacred Brooklyn, and there has been at least one day that involved grieving for someone lost. I don’t know if loss is the appropriate word to use here.  Perhaps that is the issue, I need to re-language death, identify new ‘descriptives’ since it is becoming so ever-present within my immediate circles.

The issue might be that our entire culture needs not only new words to talk about death, but a new way to look at it and honor it. It is after all, inevitable. I guess that’s not the point of this post though. It’s really just me thinking out loud as I search for a way to process what seems to be frequent death announcements spanning across generations. I’m sure I’ll wake in the morning thinking of gluten-free pancakes and baked sweet potatoes. Cousin Carla says at least you don’t crave Jack Daniels or cigarettes but I would love to be able to move through grief in stillness, without using anything outside of myself to assuage the pain.

Amiri Baraka’s passing reminds me of my mama’s book shelf when I was a little girl, it reminds me of my Auntie Bennye and Uncle Keith’s record collection and Auntie Jennifer’s love of Black poetry. As a girl growing up in a working class town where baseball, church and eating good food were often the only creative activities, I longed for something that spoke to my artistic soul. Music and poetry were my first loves.  Arriving at Howard University’s campus pre-DC gentrification was like a “Toni in Afro-Wonderland” film. Over the years, I not only met the people from those books and albums, but worked with many of them, sat on panels next to them and even got checked by a few.  Tonight before sleeping I will say a prayer for E. Etherlbert Miller, my literary father and poetic mentor to countless others.  Baraka’s passing reminds me of the hours he spent feeding and nurturing my creative hunger and love of poetry.

Well, I guess I will make that vegetable juice.  Everything is already cleaned and prepped. Hoping I can channel this energy into memorizing the words for next week’s performance with pianist Onaje Allan Gumbs at Brooklyn Academy of Music. We will perform with Abiodun of the Last Poets, another one of the greats who has reached elder status. Perhaps that’s part of the exercise–transforming grief into art, making the ugly beautiful, focusing sadness into an experience that will uplift and impact the lives of others? Who knows? If I drank liquor I would pour some out, but I’ll do me and raise my glass of green juice while reciting Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note. Yep, poets do things like that.

Sending love and light to the Baraka family, hugs to my Howard University family and to my poetry family around the world—it’s Nation Time.


Saturday Night: How About That Verdict?

Last night while driving home after hanging with the Haitian massive in Queens–well, not really, I met my friend Samantha to check out a band, but 98% of the people there were from Haiti so we were kinda’ hanging with them. Anyway, I was incredibly late because the verdict left me stunned. I sat on the edge of my bed unable to move. The most I could do was post one word comments on Facebook statuses. I wrote things like “wow” and “sigh”. I “liked” the expletives of others and cried at the photos of Trayvon and his parents. I wondered how my sweetheart was feeling. I thought about my nephews, my cousins, my brothers and friends from college. I worried about the well-being of my youngins’ (i.e. male mentees and former students). The phrase “open season” kept coming up and left me filled with anxiety so I rushed to shower and dress.

Somehow, I  was able to escape for a few hours.  The band took almost three hours to start playing but the DJ spinning zouk, as well as a few songs from Trinidad, kept the vibe warm. The band’s producer felt bad about our wait so he sent over a bottle of red wine. As Samantha poured our glasses I realized this was my first “drink” all year.  I wanted another but was driving and afraid of how it might affect my super sensitive self. I get tipsy really quick, but I had just enough to relax. Relaxation was in order. We sat in the VIP section catching up on our personal and professional lives.  Inside the silent moments I found myself wishing I could share this moment, albeit brief, with numerous people in my life. The music, the lights, the wine and the people dancing somehow made things feel ok in the world. That delusional thought was squashed when I saw Bryce, a hip-hop producer with Haitian roots, walking towards us and his first question? *insert drum roll* How about that verdict?

Well, everyone’s talking about how we will remember where we were when the verdict was announced. A friend told me she will never forget holding her breath and staring at her daughter and her God son. Another friend was in a hotel room with her sorority sisters and one of my ‘brothers’ admitted it was the first time he has cried in a very long time. I’m still tearing up. Hoping I will have an answer to Bryce’s question soon, but not rushing. I want to be clear, really clear.