21 August 2010


I recently had a conversation with one of my best friends about the hegemonic infrastructure of Western culture, particularly, American culture, where capitalism reigns supreme. We were talking about how when poor people living in ghettos are able to move "up and out" that oftentimes they leave family (familial, kin, or otherwise) behind.

We sadly recognized that this "letting go" might be necessary so that folks can live and actualize their "American Dream." We thought about the Irish, Jewish, and Italian immigrants of yesteryear, who predominantly populated inner city neighborhoods, and are for the most part, now gone - moved "up and out". We thought about the African American, Hispanic American and Asian immigrant groups that predominantly populate ghetto communities today. We also talked about our Appalachian brothers and sisters and their struggles.

Then I said to my friend, "People move up and out, like crabs in a barrel, and then all you have left in the barrel is us, swimming in the potlikker."

There was a pregnant pause in the conversation; we were both fascinated at the illustrated metaphor that had cultural significance for both of us. We were struck by the metaphorical truth of what it means to be potlikker, and quite animatedly continued our conversation unpacking this invocation.

For those who aren't familiar, potlikker (or "pot liquor") comes from Soul Food and Appalachian cooking traditions where the seasoned broth left in the pot after you cook down collard greens (or any other kind of greens), is used to cook and season other dishes. Pot liquor is where all the spices and cooking goodness are preserved when the dish is taken out of the pot and garnished to be eaten. Potlikker is known to be rich in nutritional value.

In many cultural cuisine traditions, nothing is wasted, everything has its purpose and value, and is thus utilized ... in this vein, potlikker is often saved, and used as broth or made into gravy to flavor other dishes ..... this makes me think of Hip Hop lyrics and Street Lit stories as the potlikker of the contemporary ghetto experience. Ghetto stories are preserved as text - as "broth" to flavor (as in "inform") American music, American literature, American culture and beyond (e.g. Hip Hop is international, Street Lit is in the UK). Ghetto stories are not left behind or tossed out of our discourse, they are re-purposed to add flavor and texture (as in "context") to what it means to be American, to live as an American, to live as working class or poor American city dwellers in the 21st century ...

In American culture, everyday life in the hood is a socio-political potlikker with a socio-cultural physics that is reflective of the so-called top-end of a hegemonic society. It is universal law, that the means equals the ends, the bottom is reflective of the top (following the adage, "as above so below"). Case in point, a soul food dish isn't alive without its "spirit", it's "pot liquor" that flavors the cookery from the top to the bottom of the pot, so that the cuisine itself rises to the top and out of the pot. In kind, American culture is hood at the socio-economic bottom, but it is also hood at the top and beyond (See: Ghetto Physics). Like the soul group War said back in the day, "The World Is A Ghetto."

This is why it is important that we accept the fact that we need all of our stories in the proverbial pot - all of US - ALL of our experiences - high brow and higher brow, so that we recognize and appreciate the full spectrum of our collective humanity as a cultural collective. Case in point, someone on Twitter recently tweeted, "Sometimes ghetto is not necessarily bias but a recognition of dysfunctional behavior." I dare say that this is true for all aspects of any cultural family. You can be rich and be "ghetto" too.

I know for a fact that without potlikker, many Soul Food dishes would be lacking in that rich, signature flavor - period. For example, after you take those collard greens out of the pot, and then cook some rice in with the pot liquor that's simmering at the bottom? You get nice, moist rice that's sheer bliss. The same can be regarded for ghetto stories ... where would we be without them? Who would we be without them?

There's a Buddhist adage that fits with the concept of potlikker very well, in short the adage is,"turning poison into medicine." Potlikker is like that .... it is essentially water that has been seasoned to add flavor to whatever food that boils in it. Potlikker turns uncooked, inedible food (poison) , into cooked, flavored, deliciously edible meals (medicine).

Indeed, this is what Street Lit, the literary form of Hip Hop, does .... Street Lit turns the struggles of ghetto living (poison) into a medicinal stance of reflection, contemplation, and validation. People still living in the boiling pot of the ghetto re-experience spicey lives lived, at a pace that is contemplative and un-chaotic ... with the slowed pace of reading, one is able to sit and think about what works, what makes sense, what is, and what is not, in one's life. You can't really do that when you're in the thick of survivalist living, like in the hood, because you have to "keep it moving" from one moment to the next, one block to the next, one paycheck to the next ...

Such are the lived lives that Street Lit chronicles - that's why the stories are often fast paced and action oriented, because hood life is fast paced and action oriented. Thus it does a world of good when we are able to sit down, exhale, and read a book or nod our heads to a song that reflects the lives we lead - reading the reflection in our own personal mirror, we can think gently about ourselves and our lives, and gracefully reclaim our own purpose as to what other spice(s) we want to add to our "life pot" (the container of our lived stories) to improve our living to the level of ... gourmet.

10 August 2010

Spoken Word Street Lit

Speak the Unspeakable Book Cover
When thinking about Street Literature, there are many angles to think about that rounds out the picture of all of what Street Literature has been, is, and can be. Poetry is one literary form where vivid truths about inner city living, thinking, and being, come to light.

Jessica Holter, is an amazing author whose poetry comes from a stance of liberation, truth, and activism. Her organization, "The Punany Poets" write and perform spoken word poetry about sex education and HIV/AIDS awareness. They were once featured on HBO's program, Real Sex (See her website at: http://www.punanypoets.com/).

The one thing that I've seen educators get in bunches about when it comes to Street Literature is this issue of sex in the novels. I've heard many educated, adult grown, librarians and teachers, bemoan the genre for its "raw, graphic sex." I've seen where the entire Street Lit genre has been defined based on the "raw, graphic sex"-ness of the genre, as if that is all that the genre is about. Okay - I get that - that's part of the historic situated-ness of the genre too. Stephen Crane went through the same thing when trying to publish his debut novel, Maggie, A Girl of the Streets, in 1893.

However, just as Holter's title states, to "speak the unspeakable" is also what Street Lit does. Street Lit is revolutionary in that regard; by "speaking the unspeakable" it holds no punches, it tells it like it is, it tells the world what is going on and poppin' in the hood - sex, violence, drugs, drama, yes, but also, love, commitment, honor, family, and community - whether the world likes it or not.

Poets like Holter, Patricia Smith, and even Jill Scott (see her poetry book, The Moments, The Minutes, The Hours - better yet, listen to her music, notably her song, "Rasool") add to the Street Lit conversation with their honest portrayals of the complexities of relationships (be they familial, friend/kin-based, or intimate) in inner-city settings - in the voices of women yes, but men and children, also. Another artist that has performed important tales about life in the hood is Erykah Badu. Pay particular attention to her songs, "Other Side of the Game" and "Danger." For poetic expression from a male point of view, check out Saul Wiliams' The Dead Emcee Scrolls: The Lost Teachings of Hip Hop. From a musical standpoint, I'd be remiss if I didn't refer you to the bard-ification of street life in the music of the amazing Philadelphia-based band, The Roots. But aaahhh .... that would bring us full circle back to Hip Hop, where we'd also have to talk about Common, and Mos Def, and KRSOne and, and, and .... but - I digress .... we not talkin' bout music here, we talkin words, poetry, spoken, given voice .... oh yeah, that's the original point of Hip Hop anyways ....

So if you haven't heard of Jessica Holter before, you must check her out. Her poem, Copy Cat Black, will definitely introduce you to important points she consistently makes in her work that pertain to personal accountability and responsibility (another theme that runs in street fiction - see Terra Little's Where There's Smoke, and ICE by Will Robbins, as examples). Also check out Holter's poem, Ghetto Girls Don't Lactate, which is an amazing statement about womanhood in the hood.

And as I've always positioned, life in the hood is not just about the Black experience. Holter's momma was White ..... See: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/jane-therese-my-mother-was-a-white-woman/ .... this poem vividly reminds us that inner city living is not a racial thing, it's a class thing, a socio-economic thing, an AMERICAN thing that does not discriminate. Alas, whether we want to deal with it or not, we are all in the hood together.

07 August 2010

Necessary Fictions II

A girl is born to a drug-addicted mom, whose dealer happens to be her mother who is a drug kingpin. The grandmother is a popular, well funded drug dealer ... she supplies to local celebrities as well as neighborhood folk.

About 20 years into the game, the game starts to change from weed and cocaine to crack, and young thugs bumrush the grandmom dealer's home, puts a glock to her granddaughter's head, and asks, "You done?" At which, the grandmother retires from the game, and winds up back on welfare.

Grandmother hustles in the underground economy to make sure at least one daughter in her family gets up and out of the hood ... she sets her sights on her granddaughter. The grandmother raises the granddaughter, works hard to send her to college, where the girl eventually graduates with an engineering degree. She makes it out of the hood, marries traditionally, has the nuclear family, and moves across country. But the grandmom is still in the hood - old and alone. .... Real-life or Fiction?

It's a teen boy's prom night. He gets dressed, he's ready to take pictures and then go get his girl. Except, his mom had to leave real quick to get her fix down at the corner, his younger brother went to the bodega to get something to eat ... the only person around waiting to see him in his fine suit is his social worker.

When he comes down the stairs, he's all smiles, feeling good, feeling handsome, feeling himself. It's an important moment in his emerging manhood and he can feel it. But, at that moment, his younger brother rushes in, greasy from eating his chicken wings out the bag as he walked back home from the bodega. The boy passes his older brother and soils his prom suit. The brother is so angry he punches the 10 year old boy, who at that, marches into the kitchen, gets a butcher knife, comes back and stabs the teen boy in the hand. All of this takes place in a matter of seconds. The social worker has to take the teen to the emergency room to get seen and treated, his suit is ruined, the date is never called, the mother comes home and doesn't know what's going on, ... this is this boy's prom night. ... Real-life or Fiction?

Necessary Fictions I

SCENARIO ONE:nightcity

A family of 4 sons and a mother and father move from a small town to the big city seeking a better life. While adjusting to new life, over time, the father becomes frustrated at not being able to find a decent, stable job. He turns to alcohol to deal with his embarrassment at his self-perceived failed manhood. He and his wife begin to fight on the regular. The young sons watch and wait....seething at the injury caused to their beloved mother. When the sons grow up, they quickly find wives, have families, but stay in check with their mom. Dad winds up hanging on street corners drunk all the time - he's become a hood thug. He dies by age 50 of cirrhosis of the liver...Real-life or Fiction?


A little boy is born to a prominent, socially mobile family in a major metropolitan city. He is descendant of a long line of political movers and shakers. He carries a heavy, respected surname. He is the youngest in a family of 3 sons. But in this family, the father dies early, a street victim from his political activism. Mom can't adjust with the loss. The boys are devastated - the family implodes.

The oldest son, age 22, leaves home and the city to follow a bling-bling opportunity across country. Away from home, he is falsely accused of rape and is convicted to federal prison, 3,000 miles from home. The middle son, 16, and the youngest boy, 10, are especially close .... when the older brother is shot and killed on the streets - he was in the wrong place at the wrong time - doing nothing criminal or untoward. ... this sends the mother and her last son in a emotional/mental/psychic downward spiral of no return ....

With so many devastating early losses and grief to deal with, the mother is lost, she's not dysfunctional ... she's NONfunctional. The son, a handsome young man, does what little he knows to raise himself and care for his mom, which finds him repeatedly in a group home for boys, because Mom doesn't have it in her to mother anyone ... by the time he is 20 years old, he is convicted of master minding the robbery of the department store where he worked. He goes to prison with no signs of parole because he has no legal representation. ... Real-life or Fiction?


A girl is born to a single mom who is a crack addict. She is the youngest of 3 girls. The oldest girl is a half-sister, 6 years old. The middle girl, age 3, and the baby have the same parents. Drug-dazed Mom leaves the 3 toddlers home alone too many times and the neighbors call Child Services. The oldest and youngest siblings are placed in foster care, while the middle girl is claimed by her birth father - chosen over the baby girl because the baby girl is too dark-skinned ....

For the next 10 years the two sisters move from home to home ... averaging 1 home a year, including a youth orphanage. When baby girl is 8 years old, the two girls are in the foster care of the older sister's birth father, who is a convicted burglar, addicted to cocaine, on record as having raped women and a little boy .. oh, and he's HIV positive. He gets drunk on beer one Saturday afternoon and anally rapes baby girl ... she becomes HIV positive too.

Luckily, she gets adopted by a stable family. But she has to deal with early deteriorating mental faculties, arrested emotional issues, and physical medical issues that only HIV can bring. Although she makes it to college, she has no real hope for a full, normal life, and anticipates dying young ... Real-life or Fiction?

StreetLiterature site *ON HIATUS*

Greetings, This site is *on hiatus* until further notice. There are reasons: 1/ Since street lit has become pretty mainstream in publicat...