It’s hard to find the words with which to begin. Words, I’m afraid, scarcely hold the information required to tell his story. Here we go, though, whatever my lack of eloquence.
I have known few men or women in my life I can say I truly respected. There have been many I liked well enough, and of course, many more whom I thoroughly detested – but precious few, loved or otherwise, about which it can be said I respected them.
This was such a man.
I sat, uncomfortable, shifting fore and aft in the pew, looking around at the beautiful sea of black faces surrounding me. Some I recognized from my undergraduate days on the second floor of Childer’s, some I only knew from books or the occasional PBS documentary, and more still were unknown to me completely. Still, all these were somehow familiar to me – as a long lost cousin’s high cheek bones and oblong head and bulbous nose fit ever so well in the long progression from one’s great grandfather, grandfather, and uncles; we all belonged that day, all one family, in mourning and celebration of a great man now gone.
He was a man for whom “category” and “boundary” were terms as useless as monopoly money – and confronting him with either would have been equally futile. He was, as eloquently as I can put it, unfuckingstoppable. A giant juggernaut of the art world. It was his way, or would stomp you into the highway. Ribald, regal, real; passionate and playful; confrontational, curious, and courageous; kind, giving, honest, and ALIVE. It was in this fashion that he led a movement of artists from the Chicago hinterlands to the motherland. As one artist from Nigeria put it, “Because of him, we came to America, to find Africa.” Co-creator of the “Wall of Respect,” co-founder of AfriCOBRA, leading light of the Black Arts Movement, Dean of the Howard University College of Fine Arts, and all around bad ass muthafucka.
He tried to teach us how to fight with unrepentant fury.
And how to paint even harder.
We said our goodbyes…cheered for him and cried for ourselves. We laughed at Jameelah’s jokes. Donald Byrd played. Haki Madhubuti read. And all the while, I tried to make sense of him, to fit his absence into my new reality. only just now did I finally give up on all that bullshit. He hasn’t left us at all. He is us. If only as we one day wish to be.
Here is to our mighty emperor of blackness. I hope you are giving them hell up in heaven. These sorry ass words could not do you justice.