Peeling Onions

There’s the story; then there are the stories.

In 221 B.C.E., or there about, Qin Shi Huang united the then very sparse and warring kingdoms of the Far East. Qin led the unification of what would later be hailed The People’s Republic of China. Qin did that. He became China’s first Emperor. That was the Qin dynasty.

I ask Johnny, our guide at the Terracotta Army Museum, if Xi’an is cold in the winter. It’s September and over 35°C outside. Inside, the clay warriors are dressed for real winter: heavy boots, long and stiff garments, scarves tied tight at the neck.

“Back then there were less people,” Johnny says, “so it was much colder, and the rivers were much wider. Now they are small.” Johnny is quick to respond to my questions. He’s an expert on Xi’an, a guide for over ten years. His feet are just as fast as his responses. I have a hard time keeping up with him, which has been my experience in China in general. China’s like New York City on Methamphetamine. I kind of love it.

When I ask Johnny why there are no women warriors, he sort of grins and cups his hands over his mouth, like he’s got a secret to tell, but then blurts, “At that time, you know, the woman is a slave. You could have many wives. Qin had more than 3,000 concubines.” There are terracotta horses and carriages and warriors and commanders and generals, but no terracotta women. That’s the story.

Thursday marked the 70th anniversary of the Victory of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression. On a television outside a megamall on North Street, just by the Bell and Drum Towers in Xi’an, I watched the victory parade for a few minutes with a gathering of other passersby. There’s a three-car procession down the center of Beijing, passing Tiananmen Square and the large portrait of Mao Zedong at the front of the Forbidden City. Mao’s portrait is like sign language. President Xi Jinping stands, always stoically, out the roof of the front vehicle. His suited torso, carefully parted hair, and steady head stays still, almost like he’s a hologram. Or a clay statue. There are no people on the street. Only straight lines of tanks and tankers and missiles and more tanks and soldiers and crisp blue skies. Xi’an is grey. As the President’s car passes, he yells to the soldiers, only his lips move, and they reply on queue with shouts and sternness. It’s all in Mandarin. I only watch for a few minutes. This is not my parade.

Later that night I watch the Gala Event on CCTV 1. It’s a show. There’s another procession. This time there’s a very content, but composed Chinese crowd. Parading are foreign diplomats and state VIPs. I see Putin; he’s walking at the front with Jinping. I try to guess where the other delegates and diplomats come from. I see Africa, Asia, Europe, South America, maybe. I don’t see President Obama or Secretary of State John Kerry. There are Chinese war vets: hunched and humble and smiling and wearing heavy, military green garb. Are they the modern day Terracotta Army? The diplomats shake hands on the way to their seats. They settle, and the theatrics begin. There’s dancing and singing and more dancing and singing. I think there might be more dancers than soldiers in China. I’m awestruck, really; the VMAs and the OSCARS and the GRAMMYS got nothing on this show. The most compelling part is the choreographed dance about the Rape of Nanjing. It’s a massacre: against all Chinese women, it appears. It’s intensely beautiful, but I don’t think about China or Japan. I think about humanity. Stories.

In 1974, a Chinese farmer, trying to dig a new well, struck the mighty, clay figures. He didn’t know what they were. He called his neighbors. They thought they must have been cursed. It must be bad luck. A few more calls. Government officials investigate. Archeologists bring their brushes and trowels and shovels. No, no, no, this is them: the mystical and mythical figures who were carved and kilned two millennia ago to commemorate and protect China’s first Emperor. Qin Shi Huang longed for immortality. The warriors face east, toward the rising sun, and are a part of Qin’s larger Mausoleum and tomb in the Lishan Mountains that faces the setting west. After the mighty Emperor’s death, his son was, “a stupid leader,” Johnny says. One dynasty ended, another began, and the Terracotta Army were forgotten, lost in history’s scrolls.

Today, the museum has three buildings. The first, and largest, is the size of two football fields and holds the most original and restored warriors. Each face is different. The torsos are hollow. Johnny says, “sometimes the artists are smart.” In the kiln, the hand-carved clay figures had to exude heat and fume or they would explode within the extreme temperatures: hence the hollow torsos. The heads were added later.

Johnny explains how the actual clay was brought to this part of the region. “Slaves carried it here from the south.” The women, I think. Today, archaeologists send the extra, crumbled clay to a factory to make replicas of the warriors. They deliver to America, if you want. Johnny says, “When President Clinton visited, he was offered a free one.” Clinton refused, saying he wanted to pay for it. I ask Johnny how much it would cost to buy a terracotta warrior. He said 10,000 RMB. About 1,500 US dollars. I cannot confirm President Clinton has one in his house, but Johnny is pretty certain he does. It might be at their front door. Maybe in the office. Stories.

I wonder about China, which is to say I wonder about my country: the United States of America. Original and restored and replicated. Stories. What about reenactments? What about retribution? What about the Trail of Tears and Tuskegee and Katrina? What about flags? Infamous stories. What do you do with the infamous stories? What about Donald Trump? That’s the best you can do, America? Donald Trump? Rich, white men jockeying for immortality. Stories: past, present, and future.

They all look the same, the Terracotta warriors. Today, I could have purchased an exact replica of a warrior made of the same clay, from the same land as the original warriors. I’ll take a woman warrior, please, on a horse, carrying a bow and arrow, shooting his story. How’s that for reenactment?

Peel stories, like onions.

On a Train

It’s 11:18 on Sunday morning, May 24, and I’m on the bullet train to Hangzhou. The train is mostly full, but, in our group, we are fourteen – twelve teenagers and two chaperones. It’s one of ISB’s Senior class End-of-Year trips, we’re traveling at about 310 kilometers per hour, and the word that keeps appearing in my mind is DERAILMENT.

Not, like, literal derailment. This train is smooth, clean, and comfortable. It’s just been a hectic few weeks. When I think, I see words. Literally. When I spell a word, a name, a phrase, or an idiom, and I see it there, written on my mind’s white board, I know it. DERAILMENT.

This past Tuesday I began my first course with UAA’s MFA program. I’ve been plowing through the required reading: The Best American Short Stories of 2014 and two works by Ron Carlson – A Kind of Flying and Ron Carlson Writes a Story. Carlson so easily and effortlessly captures voice in his short fiction. Reading inspires my own writing, and, after reading a little of Carlson, all I want to do is sit, type, and get stuck in story. I want to finish this piece that started with a playground. Now, it’s morphed into dementia, an affair, and physics, I think. Not sure where it’s going, but it’s going. All I want to do is finish, but I know it needs time. I need time to sit on it, let the characters marinate a bit more until the story’s juicy and ready to be either grilled or thrown in the freezer. I need time to type and then delete and then repeat until it feels real. Time, however, is not on my side at the moment.

Yesterday, a few friends and I went “busking” at 798, an artist district in Beijing. I had never heard of this term “busking” until I told another friend this past week what we were planning.

“Busking in 798,” she said. “Don’t get arrested.”

Apparently “busking” is a real term, and even though we didn’t have a permit to play music on the street, we didn’t get arrested. It was a successful event, which means we drank a lot of beer in the sun, I jammed on my djembe with the rest of Dirty City until my hands were swollen from playing euphonic praises to the universe, and we had our picture taken with many, many ever-so-curious Chinese passersby. iPhones ablaze. We were run out of one location, but quickly found a few others, and found, too, some future gigs. Dirty City likes 798 and vice versa. It felt good, too, to escape Shunyi – the Beijing suburbs – and play for an audience outside of our typical teacher-expat crowd.

Friday night there was more music. I sat in with the bits and pieces of a few local expat bands – past and present – to honor and celebrate folks finally saying good-bye to Beijing. We played well past my bedtime, but it was fun, again, to jam and chill with friends.

We’ve just passed through Nanjing, and once we hit the countryside it doesn’t feel like China. To me, China feels like a dream I always had growing up: it’s the beginning of some super-important bball game, I’m starting point guard, but I’m stuck in slow motion, while everyone else is at normal, human pace. I’m excited to be there in the moment, but I can’t catch up. I’m nervous. I’m confused. I’m lost. I’m frustrated. That’s what China feels like to me: at least the mega-city China. Watching the mountains and rice paddies and farms and clearing blue skies of the countryside doesn’t feel like that. I feel like I can breathe out here. It’s slowing down a bit.

One of the first official assignments of CWLA A662 was to submit a short bio and picture to the course discussion board on UAA’s Blackboard. It was one of those on-line thing-a-ma-bobbers, though, that won’t let you read what others have written until you actually submit. I needed some Jedi Knight trickery. What do I write? I don’t want to write too much and sound all over-anxious or dweeby, but then I don’t want to write too little and sound aloof. It took me an hour or more and I ended up rambling about Run the Jewels 2, James Baldwin, Africa, and our dog Bear. I submitted a picture – a selfie, in true Chinese fashion – of Jazzy and I outside Rome’s Colosseum, where she recently finished a marathon in 4 hours. I read the other bios. I’m nervous. DERAILMENT.

I haven’t had consistent physiotherapy time for my knee the last few weeks, but I’ve gotten into a good routine: light swimming, spinning a few times a week, push-ups and sit-ups and pull-ups. It seems like forever ago when I had a physical derailment, but I’m getting back on track. Knees are no joke.

The “real” writing I’ve been doing lately is a graduation speech for next week’s commencement ceremony. I’m cool with the writing part; it’s the actual speaking that worries me a bit. The delivery. Classroom speaking is easy, but addressing a crowd of, like, adults and stuff, all dressed up. DERAILMENT. I reckon, though, the universe will provide. The Big Man upstairs will have my back.

My first impression of Hangzhou is holy humidity. It’s not sweat-through-my-shirt humid, but I can tell, tomorrow, I’ll feel it. It is a nice change from Beijing where it’s always dry and the palms of my hands are always ashy. We arrive at 1:30 p.m., and I assign each kid a different task. D____ will find subway line number 1 and figure out how many stops to our hotel. W____ will purchase the subway tickets and make sure we get the proper fapiao (receipts) to submit to our school. The fapiao is a big deal, and I imagine the China paper trail must be longer than The Great Wall. I’ve tasked S____ to use her 4G iPhone to find walking directions from the subway stop to our hotel. It all works.

Later, we meet in the hotel lobby at 6 p.m. and then walk to Hefang Street. The teenagers lead and I follow. They flip-flop through the touristy street that’s got trinkets and more trinkets. This could be called Trinket Street. J____, S____, and K____ get matching temporary tattoos on their feet. It’s that type of street. A few others buy durian fruit candy that smells real bad, but they swear it’s tasty once you bite into it. I tell them I’ll try one tomorrow. In between Silk World and some type of green tea specialty shop, there’s a haunted house. It’s 20 RMB (about US$3.50) to enter, and, outside, the guy selling tickets is yelling about how scary it is. He’d be an amazing carnie. I tell the kids they should try it, but then S____ says, “but, Mr. P, we can’t get a fapiao for that.” She’s probably right.

At dinner, they talk about what teenagers talk about. They gossip about last night’s prom. Who did what and why. I pretend not to hear. Or, maybe I pretend not to listen, because I don’t want those stories. I already lived those stories.

We get back to the hotel at 10:18 p.m. I call Jazzy and ask her how Bear’s doing because he threw up this morning before I left. I tell her I miss her and love her and that I’ll message her before I go to sleep. I love yous and stuff.

Tomorrow, I’ll check back in with CWLA A662 and UAA’s finicky Blackboard. I’m sure my next assignment will be posted. I think about my playground-dementia-affair-physicist short story, but there’s no way I can touch that now. Less is more. Before I close my eyelids for the night, I’ll try to read more Carlson. SLEEP has replaced DERAILMENT for now. I’m happy, though, to be off one train at the moment. I’m just on a little layover, waiting for the next one.

Buzzer Beater

Monty Python showed Greece upset Germany in the Philosophers’ Football Match of 1972. It’s a must see. Google it. Now. I won’t spoil it, but there’s some late game action that’s spectacular…and heady. If the world’s philosophers favored football, I’ll wager the basketball gods must be poets at heart. Or maybe all great poets reincarnate to be great basketball players. Who’s your top five?

I got Walt Whitman at point guard: a visionary, stoic and firm, wise. At the 2-3 (shooting guard-small forward positions), I’ll take Langston Hughes and Dylan Thomas. Talk about a force to be reckoned with. Hughes, so versatile and smooth (“Mother to Son”, “Theme for English B”, “Harlem [Dream Deferred]”), will break many-a-ankle while scoring with ease, and Thomas, so cold and true with his words, will hit a jumper in your face while reciting, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” son! At the 4-5 (power forward-center positions), I got Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath. Honestly, who wants to drive to the paint against “A Coffin—is a Small Domain” and “Lady Lazarus”? If we stretch this to an 8-poet team, I’ll take Ginsberg as my sixth man, because I’m sure he’s good for about 17 points and at least 3 steals off the bench. Seventh and eighth man, but just as valuable, I got Maya Angelou and Miguel de Unamuno. Finally, my pick for Player-Coach: Lao-Tzu.

I write, but I’m no poet. I’m into prose, but prose writers are more like long distance runners or swimmers, and that’s not all that entertaining to watch. Poets have style, poise, and natural swagger. A few weeks ago, a good friend and colleague of mine made a profound comment about, as he put it, “the dynamic character that is basketball.” Darren’s a broad shouldered Aussie who looks more like a rugby chap, but he’s a baller. A 3-4 forward. He was making his end-of-season speech about his Junior Varsity Girls’ bball team at our school sports award night. Darren spoke first for a bit about how the girls had improved both individually and as a team – typical end-of-season talk – but then he took a turn for the tangential. He said that to really understand basketball, to know basketball, you have to walk it, talk it, and live it. He said there’s a flow to the game that morphs into your day-to-day: the way you actually walk and talk – your voice, tone, pace, rhythm, volume. The way you actually interact with the world. I got chills. I looked around the room and wondered if anyone was feeling like me. My boy Darren nailed it. Basketball is a game, sure, but great basketball, like great poetry, is fluid and graceful, purposeful and adventurous, fundamentally simple, but also layered with intricacies. Style, poise, and natural swagger.

Growing up along Tobacco Road in the late 80s and early 90s, every day I was shooting hoops on my raggedy but cozy cold-a-sac court, challenging my cousin at one-on-one, playing catch-and-shoot with my mom, rehearsing crossovers under a dimly-lit street light, preparing for that last second shot or that behind-the-back pass or that celebratory fist pump. My friends and I were living and breathing hoops in the middle of the Golden Era of Atlantic Coast Conference basketball.

Each week from December until March there were three or four games that would keep me up well past my bed time, and the next morning I was reading the stat lines and coaches’ quotes in Raleigh’s The N&O. There was Horace Grant and Dale Davis, Danny Ferry and Alaa Abdelnaby, Dennis Scott and Kenny Anderson, Rodney Rogers, Grant Hill, Vinny Del Negro, J.R. Reid, Bobby Hurley and Christian Laettner, King Rice, and Walt Williams. Dave Odom, Dean Smith, Terry Holland, Gary Williams, Coach K, and Cliff Ellis. The greats. They were living legends. The league was ripe with brilliant players, huge personalities, inspiring coaches, unbelievable games and moments. Rhythm and flow.

My 9-year old self was convinced that every point mattered, and while my mom never condoned pulling for Duke or Carolina ever, when the two played you’d pull for Duke, because you lived by your ABCs – Anybody But Carolina. You see, my mom’s house is built with red brick, and everyone who lives under the roof bleeds red. Wolfpack red. Jimmy V red, baby! Tommy Burleson, Monte Towe, David Thompson-touch-the-top-of-the-backboard red. Dereck Whittenberg to Lorenzo Charles alley-oop dunk red. Fire and Ice – Chris Corchiani and Rodney Monroe – red. Anything else was sacrilege.

The ACC has since changed – as has college basketball – and maybe it’s lost some of its greatness. The level of athleticism seems higher, but then kids leave early with unrealistic NBA dreams. Conferences move and shift more than bandwagon fans. Players more concerned about posturing – too much Swaggy P syndrome. I’ll take a hustling Wojo over a flashy Tyus Jones any day. The poetry has changed. Perhaps I’m a bit of an ACC purist, but these days there’s, like, twenty teams in the conference, and in 2017 the ACC tourney will move to Brooklyn.


What does Brooklyn know about the ACC?

Keep it on Tobacco Road, please.

Great poets move the masses, start revolutions, and challenge mortals to consider something more. Sure, maybe the great poets couldn’t care less about hoops, but one can wonder. The game, too, teaches and challenges and moves. There’s growth and failure and learning and inspiration. Rhythm and flow. I moved away to college and then kept moving further and further away from my Wolfpack red roots. Since, I’ve fallen hard for literature, and now, I watch way more NBA than NCAA. It’s just better, more rhythmic, more transcendent basketball. I’m hopeful though. There are poets out there ready to play. I’m proudly a product of the Golden Era of ACC bball (even though my real playing days never went past high school hoops). The game has taught me as much as great literature has, and, in my world, they have to go together. Bball and poetry, bball and lit. This is the best time of year for fans. March Madness spills into the NBA playoffs. My boy Darren got it right: hoops, like poetry, affects how we interact with the world. It’s March Madness, baby. Pray to the bball gods for greatness and in between games, read some poetry. Who’s your top five?



A Letter to Derrick Rose that’s really about ERIC GARNER

Dear Derrick Rose,

Or is it DRose? I was gonna hit you up on Twitter, but you got, like, 2.15 million Followers, 8 Favorites, and only 46 total Tweets. To top it off, the last time you actually tweeted was September 12. Those are Kanye-esque-celebrity-status Twitter stats. The last letter I wrote to a pro athlete was in 1986. I was 7 then, and Spud Webb was my childhood holy savior. If Spud, at 5’7”, could make it to the NBA and win the Slam Dunk Contest, a short, skinny white kid like me surely had a chance.

To be honest, I’m a Lakers fan, but this letter is more than hoops. I’m 35 now and didn’t make the NBA. I’m about to have my second knee surgery, and, despite my Purple-Yellow bloodline, you’re my favorite NBA star. I don’t follow your bball stats like I do Kobe (he most recently sizzled in 32 in a win against the Kings), but I think you got that Bad-Boy era mojo. Tell it like it is.

In a recent interview (November 2014) after a team practice, you said,

“I know a lot of people get mad when they see me sit out or whatever, but … when I sit out, it’s not because of this year. I’m thinking about long term. I’m thinking about, after I’m done with basketball, having graduations to go to, having meetings to go to. I don’t want to be in my meetings all sore or be at my son’s graduation all sore just because of something I did in the past, so it’s just learning and being smart.”

As I’m about to go under the knife once again, I’ve actually thought a lot about your words. I’m no pro-athlete. I’m far from it – I teach high school English. But, you seem wise in your youth. Like you know what it takes to recover from an injury, and you’re not about to put yourself in a place to have to go there again. My sentiments exactly. Surgery is like taking a long-awaited trip, but when you get back, you ain’t really gone nowhere. No stories to tell because you weren’t awake to see it or feel it. Your plight in consciousness is to listen to the surrounding pity-party that you don’t want to be a part of, but it’s your party and you can’t play hooky. I don’t want to go back under the knife again.

Sacrifice and smart recovery.

DRose, I’m gonna level with you here. The Lakers aren’t making the playoffs this year. While I’m not going to rock a No. 1 Bulls jersey, I wish you the best of luck. Beat Lebron and those damn Cavs! At least you got Pau Gasol on your team, and he’s got that winning Lakers’ blood.

What I really wanted to write to you about is Eric Garner and Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and Sean Bell and Amadou Diallo. There are many others.

Young, black boys. Slain.

A child of God died.

More finished than simple past tense.

And it doesn’t make sense.

On Saturday December 6, in your pre-game warm-up, you wore a t-shirt, instead of your Chicago Bulls garb, which read “I Can’t Breathe.” You were the first player to react to the December 3 Staten Island Grand Jury decision not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo for killing Eric Garner. You didn’t have a pre-game conference announcing the t-shirt. You just rocked it and then played one of your 82 NBA games (you did lose to the Warriors, but understandably so).

After the game, you said:

“I had the shirt made, my best friend Randall brought it to the game, and I decided to wear it. It wasn’t any one’s idea, I just thought I wanted to support something that happened. That’s what made me wear the shirt.”

And then:

“I grew up and I saw it every day. Not killing or anything like that, but I saw the violence every day. Just seeing what can happen. If anything, I’m just trying to change the kids’ minds across the nation and it starts here.”

And finally:

“I’m a parent now. I had a kid two years ago. It probably would have been different before. I probably wouldn’t have worn the shirt. But now that I’m a dad, it’s just changed my outlook on life, period.

“I don’t want my son growing up being scared of the police or having the thought that something like that could happen. I have a cousin, that easily could have been him, or that easily could have been one of our relatives. It’s sad that people lost their lives over that.”

I was struck by your words and I think your peers were, too. Lebron followed suit, and then it became the NBA norm to rock the t-shirt motto, almost like a logo.

Derrick, I hope you do more. I hope you find another t-shirt to wear, or shoe to don that will address the fractures that ail. Keep the dialogue going.

White America has no idea. What it all means.

I have no idea. I can see it, but I don’t feel it. My wife’s black, so she does. There’s white privilege and black power and I think I’m somewhere in between…

I’m angry, Derrick, but I don’t want to rant.

I want to listen and be smart and recover.

We’re all affected by the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. We have to be affected. What’s important is how we choose to empathize, to think, and to act.

America is broken.

Despite the pain that surgery will surely bring, recovery is about the sacrifice…

Sincerely yours,


#12 Athens Drive Jaguars, class of 1998, State Sectional Champs, PG/SG

I Dos

My cousin’s wedding was the second best wedding I’ve ever attended. At family gatherings that story gets passed around more than homemade cheese doodles, and even though everyone has a slightly different version of how it went down, it gets sweeter with each retelling. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime events that makes you sigh and appreciate the better things in life, like helpless love, endless sunny Sunday afternoons and long, uncontrollable laughing spells.

It was all a big set up. Jeff called me in early April and said Jodi – his then girlfriend – was going to have an early birthday party in May. Her birthday isn’t actually until late June, but I didn’t think twice about it.

There was more. There was a dress code, and the bash would actually begin at the Bardavon theatre in Poughkeepsie. After, the party would relocate to their house for beverages, food, further shenanigans, and more beverages. The Bardavon is the oldest theatre in New York State. In 1869, it was originally an opera house, but now anybody who’s anybody has performed there: Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Cliff, Yo-Yo Ma, Queen Latifah.

At the time, I was living in Washington Heights and didn’t have any 1950s attire on hand. My all white Nike Air Force 1’s wouldn’t suffice. I found a slim-fit pair of dark blue jeans, an old pair of Dockers dress shoes and a white t-shirt à la James Dean. When I arrived to their house on the Friday of the party in my thrift-shop-bought 50s garb, Jodi said it wasn’t quite up to par. I borrowed her girlfriend’s (J-Ro from the Bronx) black leather jacket.

Jeff and Jodi left for the Bardavon early and I filled a flask full of Jack Daniels while I waited for my Uncle, Aunt and cousin Loopy to pick me up. There was a red carpet rolled out along the sidewalk and a paparazzi cameraman ready to take pictures when we arrived to the entrance of the theatre on Market Street. This wasn’t necessarily out of the ordinary for Jeff and Jodi; their shindigs are always epic. I got my pic with the birthday girl and my cousin, and then settled into the theatre. It was movie night and William Wyler’s Roman Holiday was the feature.

After the flick, there was more paparazzi and more red carpet, and then, back at Jeff and Jodi’s house, their friend Todd tended a full bar and made sure the bourbon meatballs and spinach artichoke dip and other hors d’oeuvres were plentiful. There were fifty or more friends and family in their home celebrating what we all thought was Jodi’s birthday, and as the night passed, the house seemed to get bigger and bigger and bigger, like it was breathing freer and fuller with every laugh, cheers and funky dance tune. It was already a special night.

At some point, J-Ro from the Bronx was tasked to get everyone in the living room for a game. It must have been like herding cats. No one wanted to play a game, but, somehow, she got us settled in to one of two adjacent rooms. Next thing we knew, a woman in a long, white church robe was standing in front of us all. I was tipsy, but she certainly wasn’t in 50s garb. Janet, their Unitarian officiant, hit play on the CD player, and as “Love Will Keep Us Together” by Captain and Tennille sang through the speakers, Jeff and Jodi arrived, almost out of nowhere, hand in hand, beaming with something celestial that all of us in the room were jealous of. We had been had in the best way.

My wife, who is from the west coast, and I met almost accidentally in New York City, but something – celestial for certain – kept bringing us together. In 2010, we wed in her Aunt Beverly’s front yard that was lined with white, pink and red roses. It was a wet wedding: everyone was crying. Jodi and J-Ro from the Bronx, who were sitting in the crowd (cousin Jeff was my best man), heard sniveling and sobbing sounds behind them. When they turned to look, they saw Antoine and Tut-Tut (both well over six feet tall and built like linemen), bawling their eyes out. That day the yard was flooded with happy tears. After the ceremony, we had a little backyard boogie, blanketed in black and gold and the southern Californian sun and joy. There was soul food, Patrón, bluegrass, the Cuban shuffle, red velvet cake, and then Uncle Jabo broke out his whistle dance routine when the DJ played Too Short’s “Blow the Whistle.” Looking back, our wedding weekend (which was the best wedding I ever attended) not only celebrated a commitment of marriage, but it was a union of two families, cultures and perspectives (perhaps even two Americas). My white suburbia and my wife’s inner city world met for the first time, bonded and then partied harder than Prince did back in 1999. Our families became one: our happiness, sorrows, victories and defeats. While a coast separates them, they still stay connected via Happy Birthday cards, phone calls or text messages, Facebook even.


Four years later and my wife and I traveled to South Africa for a two-week holiday. During one week, we explored the Entabeni game reserve and prepared for the Big 5 marathon. We’re a bit hooked on long distance running, which gives us time to exercise, share, talk and pray together. The most challenging part of that stretch of our trip wasn’t the 42.2 km run, it was actually surviving the after-race celebration party with a group Australians we befriended. Beware of a game called “Speed Boat,” which to my knowledge is the Australian national sport. I lost most of the rounds, but by the end of the night, I was leading their Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, ouee, ouee, ouee battle cry as if I, too, was from the great Down Under.

We spent the rest of our time in the Western Cape, staying in Camps Bay, an affluent suburb that sits south of Cape Town, literally at the foot of the majestic Table Mountain. Camps Bay doesn’t have the charm of the Mother City, but the views are heroin to the eyes. The beach lined mountain range sits almost smugly, like a pride of lions basking in the sun. In Camps Bay, passersby move freely and without worry, but the physical beauty of the Western Cape is little match to the emotional effect of the stories that lie there within Robben Island.

In May of 1997, Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe reported to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa about her husband Robert Sobukwe. When asked How did your life get affected by the fact that you got married to this man, Robert Sobukwe, Zondeni said that, “nothing came to my surprise or shock, because from the day I met him he was in the struggle and he died in the struggle. Everything was to be expected. I was not too grieved, in the sense that I expected these things.”

When you visit Robben Island, a former political prisoner escorts you through the grounds. Our guide, a Xhosa man, looked and sounded a bit like Mandela; he was deliberate and purposeful with each and every word. He spoke slowly and loudly and rolled his r’s with immaculate delicacy. He was a tall man, much taller, it seemed, than the cemented confines of the prison walls. It was difficult to visualize him barefoot and clad in shorts – even during the winter months – moving from cell to bathhouse to the work yard outside.

The highlight of the touristy-tour of Robben Island is certainly the prison cell of inmate 46664. Our guide revered Mandela not only as the father of the nation, but as a personal friend. As expected, Mandela’s cell is small and boxy and brutally bare. No toilet, only a bucket. No bed frame, only a mat. No glass in the barred windowpane to impede the cold Atlantic breeze from breaching the already frigid and stale cell walls. When it was our turn to walk through the corridor that Mandela inhabited for 18 years, we accompanied a family from Saudi Arabia. We all took digital camera pictures and iPhone pics and selfies, trying to capture the solitude that Mandela must have surely felt. One of the Saudi children asked if I was from New York. I said no, but had lived there for several years. “I want to go to New York City so bad,” she said, and then her mother pulled her through the remainder of the scanty hallway.

Robert Sobukwe was a lover of literature. In 1949, he founded Beware, a daily publication out of Fort Hare University, where he studied English, Xhosa and Native Administration. In 1950, he and Zondeni married, and by 1954, Sobukwe, then known as “the Prof”, was a lecturer in African Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Later, in 1957, Sobukwe became editor of The Africanist, and while his popularity grew and his interest in the fight for national equality and democracy intensified, he took on more of a leadership role. Dissatisfied with the Mandela led African National Congress’s (ANC) mission and public tone, Sobukwe founded the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) in 1958. In his inaugural speech, Sobukwe spoke on race, national movements within Afrika, the then pressing issues within South Africa and summed up the PAC’s goals with this:

To us the term “multi-racialism” implies that there are such basic insuperable differences between the various national groups here that the best course is to keep them permanently distinctive in a kind of democratic apartheid. That to us is racialism multiplied, which probably is what the term truly connotes. We aim, politically, at government of the Africans by the Africans, for the Africans, with everybody who owes his only loyalty to Afrika and who is prepared to accept the democratic rule of an African majority being regarded as an African.

We guarantee no minority rights, because we think in terms of individuals, not groups. Economically we aim at the rapid extension of industrial development in order to alleviate pressure on the land, which is what progress means in terms of modem society. We stand committed to a policy guaranteeing the most equitable distribution of wealth. Socially we aim at the full development of the human personality and a ruthless uprooting and outlawing of all forms or manifestations of the racial myth.

To sum it up we stand for an Africanist Socialist Democracy. Here is a tree rooted in African soil, nourished with waters from the rivers of Afrika. Come and sit under its shade and become, with us, the leaves of the same branch and the branches of the same tree. Sons and Daughters of Afrika, I declare this inaugural convention of the Africanists open. 

The PAC’s first initiative was to hold a 5-day non-violent protest against the apartheid regime’s Pass Law which mandated non-whites carry a government issued identification book at all times. Even though Sobukwe informed police authorities of the PAC’s plans for the March 21, 1960 rally, 69 protesters were killed and 180 others injured in what would later be known as the Sharpeville Massacre. Police opened fire on the 5000 plus men, women and children.

Sobukwe, who was seen as the ringleader, was arrested for incitement and immediately sentenced to three years in prison. As his prison term was ending, however, the regime then passed the “Sobukwe Clause”, which allowed the Minister of Justice to annually renew imprisonment terms at his or her discretion. This clause was created solely for the continued detainment of Sobukwe and was never used for any other inmate. In 1963, Sobukwe was sent to Robben Island and spent the next six years of his life in complete solitary confinement.

Sobukwe’s holding cell, which still stands today as the Robert Sobukwe House, is a few miles from the main prison grounds. It’s a very modest one-room home with a gravel yard, surrounded by high, barbed-wire fence. Under no circumstances was Sobukwe ever permitted to talk with other inmates or prison guards. He did, however, have “privileges” that other inmates did not: books, newspapers, civilian clothes, bread. While incarcerated, Sobukwe earned a degree in Economics from the University of London, and was offered several international jobs – including one from the NAACP in Alabama – only to be denied each time by the Minister of Justice.

In 1969, Sobukwe was released to a strict house arrest in Kimberely, South Africa and banned to participate in any political activity. In 1977, while only in his early 50s, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. As his health rapidly deteriorated, the government made it increasingly difficult for him to receive adequate medical assistance and to be surrounded by friends and loved ones. He died in February 1978.


There are many lenses with which to view Robert Sobukwe. Political dissident and rebel. Prisoner. Freedom fighter. Pan Africanist. Father of the Black Consciousness Movement. The Prof. Lawyer. Husband. Father. To me, Sobukwe was an Optimist, Drunk on Love. If I’ve learned anything since being married, it’s that love is rarely logical. You do this and that for your spouse, even though every inch of your psyche says, “no, no, no, don’t do that.” It’s enough for a mere mortal to say I do to one other human. In marrying Zodeni, Robert Sobukwe was a mere mortal. I’m sure they have their own sacred wedding story. “Love will keep us together,” sing Captain and Tinnelle. Amidst hardship and hate, love will keep us together. The apartheid regime was deathly afraid of Sobukwe’s intoxicating drive to rid the world of hate. In his PAC inaugural speech, he claims that, “there is only one race to which we all belong, and that is the human race.” Sobukwe was a man of deep conviction. He was a prophet. He married a cause, a struggle for freedom and for love that would transcend an archaic mindset and a rigid government’s capacity to control its people. Sobukwe was well before his time; his words and mind were made of something celestial. Here’s to those before us who fought the good fight. Here’s to those in love.