MahoganyBooks Front Row: The Podcast

Crafting a Narrative at the Crossroads of Black Masculinity and Queerness

March 11, 2024 MahoganyBooks, Derrick A. Young Season 1 Episode 12
MahoganyBooks Front Row: The Podcast
Crafting a Narrative at the Crossroads of Black Masculinity and Queerness
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Embark on a profound exploration of African-American literature and personal storytelling with Rasheed Copeland and our guest Dr. Tony Keith Jr., as they unravel the threads of identity, language, and the art of narrative. Dr. Keith, a poet whose words paint the truths of the black and LGBTQ+ communities, takes us behind the scenes of his memoir "How the Boogeyman Became a Poet." His tale, catalyzed by an inquisitive young fan, delves into the shift from academic to YA writing amid the pandemic's global upheaval. Through Tony's eyes, we witness the intimate bond between a writer and their creations, illuminating the relevance and power of African-American stories.

Embarking on our podcast journey, we navigate the intricate pathways of self-identity and delve into the subtleties of code-switching, all while exploring Dr. Keith's experiences within various educational settings. The conversation seamlessly traverses the literary landscape, centering on Richard Wright's "Native Son" and delving into themes of black masculinity, intertwined with the solace Dr. Keith discovers in poetry. Drawing parallels, he likens the art of captivating a congregation in a black church or commanding the stage as an MC to the confident yet vulnerable expression that shapes our public persona. These reflections become interwoven with personal anecdotes, casting light on the delicate balance of revealing oneself through the written word.

As the Boogeyman (Dr. Keith) sheds his cloak to reveal the poet beneath, we discuss the selective art of storytelling—choosing the details that resonate with the core theme of one's journey. The liberation found in writing to confront racism, homophobia, and poverty reveals the transformative power of language and self-expression. Closing the episode, we underscore the importance of African American literature in shaping personal narratives and influencing cultural tapestry. Tune in to MahoganyBooks Front Row: The Podcast and be transported by the voices of African American authors who guide us through their experiences and the vibrant hues of their stories.

Discover a world of Black Literature
Visit MahoganyBooks and use code 'Front Row' to save 10% on your first purchase. #BlackBooksMatter

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase, I may receive a commission at no extra cost to you.

Support the Show.

Thanks for listening! Show support by reviewing our podcast and sharing it with a friend. You can also follow us on Instagram, @MahoganyBooks, for information about our next author event and attend live.

Speaker 1:

Welcome to the Mahogany Books Podcast Network, your gateway to the world of African-American literature. We're proud to present a collection of podcasts dedicated to exploring the depth and richness of African-American literature. Immerse yourself in podcasts like Black Books Matter, the Podcast where we learn about the books and major life moments that influence today's top writers, or tune in to Real Ballads Read, where brothers Jan and Miles invite amazing people to talk about the meaningful books in their lives. So whether you're a literature enthusiast, an advocate for social justice or simply curious about the untold stories that shape our world, subscribe to the Mahogany Books Podcast Network on your favorite platform and let African-American literature ignite your passion.

Speaker 2:

So with that I'm going to get to the first bio. I'm going to introduce our conversation host, rashid Copeland. Rashid is a native of Washington DC. He's the author of the book, his author of the book of silence, manhood as a pseudoscience and mud jumble jubilee, and it is a multiple and it's a multiple recipient of the DC Commission of the Arts and Humanities Fellowship Award. He's performed and facilitated writing workshops across the country and internationally. He plays second in the world at the 2015 Individual Poetry Slam. His work has been featured in online publications such as poetorg, split this Rock and the Crab Portrait Review. Please welcome Rashid Copeland.

Speaker 2:

And a man of the hour. This guy's energy is fantastic and I love it. Mr Tony Keith Jr is a black American gay poet, spoken word artist and hip hop educational leader from Washington DC. He is he is author of the YA memoir Inverse how the Boogie man Became a Poet. Tony's writings have appeared in the International Journal of Critical Media Literacy, the Journal of Black Masculinity and many others. A multi-year fellow of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities for PhD in Education from George Mason University, tony is CEO of Ed MC Academy and lives with his husband, harry Christian the third, in his DC hometown. Visit him at Tony Keith Jr. Please welcome the man of the hour, dr Tony Keith Jr.

Speaker 3:

Oh for Tony, of course, all for Tony there we go Family in the building.

Speaker 4:

Yes, yes, hey Ro hey mama, hey cuz, hey yo.

Speaker 3:

All right. First off, you are a king for having your husband in the bio. I'm glad my partner's not here. She would be expecting like a yes, hey, listen. So yes, first off, how you doing. You're good. I am Happy pub day, thank you, thank you.

Speaker 4:

Thank you. Thank you, I'm fantastic.

Speaker 6:

Y'all.

Speaker 4:

Y'all, I spent the day listening to the audiobook. Y'all might not notice, but I narrated my own audiobook and I don't. Authors don't get the right to do that opportunity. It was the coolest thing to listen to myself read my own book about myself, and it for five and a half hours, right, anyway. So if y'all get a chance, listen to the audiobook, it is a. It's a dynamite experience. Well, at least for me it was, but yeah, I'm. So my point is I'm joyful, extremely joyful.

Speaker 3:

Okay, okay. So I got a few questions First I'm gonna start like with a real lofty one, like so can you just tell us, like what made you decide to write this book?

Speaker 4:

What made me decide to write how the boogeyman became a poet? I'm probably gonna answer a lot of questions by telling stories. It's just the way that I kind of get to the answer things. What happened was this is the real story February 2020,.

Speaker 4:

Me and my dear friend y'all know, jason Reynolds we were at a University of South Carolina together doing like he was talking about his life as an author. I was talking about my life as a poet and spoken word artist, just sort of like what our different lanes and writing and reading and all that speaking was. And after every event, because of Jason Reynolds, there was a massive book signing right, lots of kids and families lined up to get books with Jay, and so I was used to just sitting at the tables just like this with him while people are in line and I'm just chilling, just talking, and this woman black woman gets out of line with little boy. I don't know how he was, but these are middle school or high school students. This little black boy came to me probably was gay, I don't know. I don't want to assume nothing about a kid, but he says um, brian, be nice. And so he said where's your book? And this is important one, because the question was do you have one? It was like you know the one. You wrote like where is it? You know what I mean? So there was something about this little boy. I'm gonna just and it reminded me of myself. He just kind of I don't like called a book out of me, if that makes sense.

Speaker 4:

So I go back to my hotel room that night and I decide to write 500 words down of this is the truth, y'all. So I was working on my dissertation at the time. I thought I was writing a version of my dissertation that would be appropriate for younger readers. I did, I was I'm gonna write it by. I'm interviewing all these people who are poets, and how I interviewed them and what my methodology was, and like all this, it was ridiculous, right.

Speaker 4:

And so the next morning I go downstairs into our hotel and I'm at Starbucks with Jay and I show him, I flip my laptop around. I was like, look, I put 500 words down about a book that I want to write. And Jason, being Jason, was like okay, tony, you're gonna write a book. I'm like, yeah, I'm writing a book, and what winds up happening? And this was February 2020, y'all know, march 2020, covid hit, and at that time I was full-time employed.

Speaker 4:

I got laid off from my job the year before I was fully PhD, but I had no choice but to sit there and write a book. And so it came from this little boy who was like I need a book. And then it hit me like there are no books available right now, at least in the trade market space, that feature stories specifically about cisgendered black gay boys who are poets, spoken word artists, like written in verse, like there was a very unique niche and niche, and so that's that's kind of how it came to be. I think that I always dreamed of writing a book, but I just kind of wasn't sure that I needed to until that moment.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, so you mentioned that the Book is written in verse. For those of us who don't know, can you explain, like, what it means to have? A book written in verse, and also what it means to have a memoir written in verse, because we also don't see too many of those.

Speaker 4:

This is great, because this is a question about language and vocabulary and you all should know I, I'm a trained academic, don't sleep. I know all the PhD things, but I do not have an MFA, I don't have a master fine arts. I'm not someone who took any. I think I took maybe one class in like black literature in college, but I'm not someone who's like classically trained as a writer, right? The reason why I say that is I did not know Verse was a form of writing until I kind of started doing it, right. So what verse means?

Speaker 4:

Y'all is essentially each page in this book. It's structured like poems. So this is.

Speaker 4:

It's not like a traditional Book of just, you know, block text, justified. It's structured like poetry. There's stanzas, there's rhyming, there's rhythm, there's a literation, but it's a rhythmic story, and so that's the first thing. So verse, just think about it as a rhythmic way of telling stories. That's the way that I look at it. And in the format it's not static on the page, it moves around. I think that's for me. I know that's a wonderful thing, especially for young readers who are intimidated by a lot of text on the page. Even adult readers who are might be in tip right. I heard some yes, uh-huh, right, but don't, I don't want to read 352 pages. I'm like y'all relax, it's not like 352 pages, I'm just like glass mess. It's poetic, it's rhythmic. I'll read some of that to you tonight.

Speaker 4:

Now, memoir this is another thing about language. So this there's autobiographies or biographies, and then there are memoirs. I did not also know this until I started writing this book Autobiography. Biography usually is like the life of a person, right, we're going from like birth until whenever that person decides they want to sort of end that biography, right? A?

Speaker 4:

memoir keyword, the root word in their memory, right? So it's about specific memories, about a specific moment in time. So in this book, the moment of time I write about the story begins in spring 1999 and I'm in my senior year at Duval High School in PG County and I'm trying to figure out how am I going to get into college. It's first of my family to do so, just kind of the way the cards fell. I'm also pretty sure at this time in my senior year of high school, probably before that, that I was gay, although I hadn't done nothing. It's important. Pretty sure I was gay, at least I thought I was, although I hadn't done nothing. That's important because I'm like I don't know, I don't know I'd feel these things I don't know.

Speaker 4:

And the third thing was, yeah, and how I sort of discovered poetry. And so I Write this book in that time period. And then it ends and fall 2000, when you sort of see me Flourishing, if you will like, on a college campus, like actually being a poet and all that kind of stuff. So, memoir, short moment in time, this in this case it's like two years of my life, right. There are, however, flashbacks, so it's not like it reads all. Just, you know, they're definitely like flashbacks of earlier moments of my childhood and yeah, Cool.

Speaker 3:

So now I have a 17 part question. No, this Bring it Just so a two-part question. We're talking about language. I noticed there's a like theme in this book Surrounding like code switching. You know me, knowing you now know you don't do too much code switching these days. But In the book, not like the actual verse itself, which is very much like any. All know Tony, you read the book, you're gonna hear him coming through it. But like in the book, it talks about, I guess, code switching. And how do you feel like that Lint itself to you navigating the space you had to navigate like as a young, you know, gay, black, this man.

Speaker 4:

Yeah, yeah Whoo, that is a layered one because there's a couple things in there. There's code switching of language right, we could talk about African-American vernacular English and standard English. But there's also code switching in terms of my identity right, trying to perform as a straight boy, right, but knowing that I'm kind of not. So there's a bit of a code switching in that, and so it has a lot to do with Identity and when it comes out to things like language, you know, shout out to DC public schools. What the world needs to know is my sister now. We started in DC public schools. This is important. Our whole family from DC.

Speaker 4:

We moved a PG in early 90s for reasons which we get into in the book, but I started off in schools where my language was celebrated. Shout out McGonnie elementary. Right up here. Mcgonnie off of Willow wrote was not McGonnie anymore, it's Eagle Academy or whatever it is. And you know I was celebrated for my language there. I'm all you know. Miss Whitley put my stuff up on the thing and had me emceeing events at the school. The moment we moved to PG County schools.

Speaker 4:

I ain't not a PG County schools, or maybe I am, I don't know. It was the first time that I actually had a lot of white teachers, but usually in English classes. And in this book I write about my AP English teacher I just call her miss Nylon which, by the way I'm just gonna say in this book are lots of wonderful nuggets for different kinds of people. And so for those of you who know the Golden Girls, you'll see, you'll see Nylon, you'll see Devereaux, you'll see is Vornack. So the Golden Girls made it in the book and so Again, so the folks, some folks, get it, okay, um, so I write about how this particular teacher. She would always say Tony, you, you need to write better, you need to speak better, you need to enunciate better.

Speaker 4:

I was always told by this particular teacher that I spoke wrong and I didn't understand. I didn't understand that because I'm like, I speak how I speak, I speak how my people speak. We say this that day, everybody, mother, father, this is, this is normal language. I came out with this. But I can't write like this in an academic setting because it's not considered correct and so how you gonna tell me something about my language is incorrect. And so what I did in this book, I Decided to flex. I was like I'm gonna put all the African-American vernacular English I can in this thing, because I know I want black and brown readers to know. Yo, your language matters, it is real, you are legitimate right, like, don't let someone try to scratch that out of you, and so, yeah, yeah.

Speaker 3:

Said I'll answer that 17 part question. I got so many questions, so there is a moment in the book where you get to kind of reflecting on On Richard Wright's Native son and I thought it was. I read the event, I read this why read this one? This one just came in today and on my phone I also got where we got. We got the audio book.

Speaker 4:

I wanted to make sure we gave this the right fidelity.

Speaker 3:

So this part especially spoke to me. You know so I am, you know so she had male. But I think and for those of us who may be in here will also say shit, I think we have a lot to learn as far as, like how gay black context cisgender, heterosexual.

Speaker 4:

I just want to make sure, right yeah.

Speaker 3:

Um, so I think we assist you at me. We got a lot to learn. I do think that black gay men are the leaders in challenging the I guess tenants of whiteness.

Speaker 6:

So to speak.

Speaker 3:

You know, and I think a lot of us, we deal with the same things. They just might be animated, different, like. So I think we're all navigating the same sort of space. Penalties for me might not be as harsh as penalties for you, but like we're still navigating that. So I thought it was interesting Bringing up bigger Thomas and how. You know, for those of y'all who don't know the story, very complex, you know, I average black man, we real complex. We got a lot of love in us, got a lot of violence in us, got a lot of sex in us and I just wanted to know like I'm gonna put this. You know I'm always talking about navigation. Like how do you feel as a gay black man? Like how do you navigate the space, that young One Having somewhat desire for other men but also having somewhat of a fear of these men who could very well Punish you, hurt you, yeah, yeah.

Speaker 4:

Yeah, wow, she. That is Dynamite question, and the first thing that pops in my head is actually I think with this not I think, but I know so much with this book, you bit man is about the way that I navigated that y'all it was. It was with the poems. That's the truth. It's the actual poetry that I would write to myself in the middle of the night when I couldn't sleep, when I was dealing with oh, my parents just got the voice and pops is dealing with drugs. You know, we keep moving and I think I'm gay and like just the all the wrestling with that stuff in the middle of the night.

Speaker 4:

As a kid I didn't know what else to do but to just start writing in the book. Matter of fact, y'all in this book I'm gonna shut this out, I'm really excited about this. I am you. Y'all will see photograph copies of the actual handwritten poems I wrote as a kid. So for those of you who have diaries or journals or you had a huge bit kid, hey, doc, I kept them. I kept them and, matter of fact, I'm leading to that story I kept them.

Speaker 4:

And so here I am in my late 30s writing this book and I'm in therapy. This is the truth. I'm in therapy, I'm in talk space therapy Shout out to my therapist, walston, bless that man. But I got, although I've been out of therapy for a while, but anyway, and I remember, therson says, tony, what seems like a lot of this, like, maybe like suppressed anger, suppressed fear, suppressed doubt, like a lot of suppressed feelings that are showing up in your adult life. Now Perhaps you should look at that box of the poems that you've been lugging around since you was a kid, right, you've been hoarding around probably some mess that you might need to dig up, right.

Speaker 4:

And so I spent a weekend. I went into my closet we was living on Kearney Street and, shout, I missed that. No, I don't. I love my house, I love my house, I love my house, I love my house, I love my house. Okay, and I opened up that box of poems and I read through all of them, yeah, and I cried, I was angry, I ripped some of them up. It was very like. It was a ritualistic, it was like spiritual, it was like, wow, like I had been whole. This is where I've been holding. No wonder, like, no wonder why I keep showing up in my adult life. I'm cussing out. I love my husband cussing out my husband over something that I was mad at when I was seven, you know. I mean like this sort of projection and the missing, the cues and things.

Speaker 4:

And so that's how I navigated was, if anything, the poems kept me alive, they kept me safe. I was able to write about what I was feeling without having to let nobody know. You know what I mean. So I could show up in places and just look, saying just like this, and be thinking all kind of things about you, or thinking all kind of things about you, and I'm like they don't know what I'm thinking. I could just stay safe in my thoughts, in my head. When I get home I'm like, oh, this shit down, you know what I mean yeah.

Speaker 4:

Yeah, yeah. And so the other thing I'll say is I did not at the time, because I was young, right, did not have language, I would not have said racism, I would not have said homophobia, I would not have used that language. I just wasn't, it just didn't feel right, but I would have described it in metaphor. That was the truth. I feel like you know, I'm falling in the mud hole, in the middle of the desert, and even the water in the desert.

Speaker 4:

You know what I mean. That was actually a really good line. I gotta write that down Right. But I would write that and that for me made me feel better and because it was cryptic enough, meaning nobody could really understand it. If I like, left it out, nobody would know what.

Speaker 3:

I was talking about Right.

Speaker 4:

So there was sort of this yeah, yeah, okay.

Speaker 3:

So in line with that, I want to talk about performance. Can you expound on the ways I guess performance has helped you, not only in like, writing and poetry, but just throughout adolescence, because I feel like there's a sense of for me. I feel like in some way, shape or form, we all perform. You know, we're going to perform what we think a man is. We're going to perform what we think a woman is. We're going to perform what we think white is straight, like, what have you? But I do find that like a lot of times for young black boys, we perform in a way for a sense of like, we perform for safety, if that makes sense. You know, like and so like. There's the litmus of all. Right, you supposed to be this hyper masculine guy up here. Anybody else again? Gay, straight, how have you? If you don't perform that way, you will be penalized for hierarchy.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, definitely. So just could you expand on like how performance has kind of like been a part of your?

Speaker 4:

Yeah, absolutely. That's a great question. She didn't. The first thing I think about is in this book I actually write about I'm going to talk about the black church. In this book I write about how in high school and even I think it's probably early middle school my friends Evan and Brandy sort of just not convinced me, but in the book I call it good luck church. I don't even give the name of the church away, but it's anyway so like a mega church now. It's a mega church now.

Speaker 4:

But, it's huge, but I was, I was, I was in the youth choir and I was singing. I would sing. Yes, Brian, I used to go to church and sing in the choir. Oh, what time is it? We good, we're fine, and what I'll say is that's the first thing that I'll say is I understood performance in a spiritual way, so like being able to sing and like belt out loud and like in, like this atmosphere where everybody's like in praise and worship and there's like this feeling of God. That's the only way I can describe it. There's a feeling like I was a kid up on the. I was up there shouting, like I was, I was in it, like I was. Oh, yes, I was, I was in it and in some of that probably I would even argue was a performance I saw other people around me. This is what you're doing and I'm going to do the same kind of thing too, but there was a release of emotional energy when I sang right.

Speaker 4:

So being able to just like get that out to weep to well, to sing, to like something about getting it out. And then the response from the audience, or in that case, the congregation, makes me think so much about call and response. Shout out to the black church. Also, when you think about a really good MC who can move a crowd, call and response is an important part of it. And so for me, once I started getting on stage and performing poems and receiving this positive response from audience, my confidence began to grow Right.

Speaker 4:

I began to like become very comfortable with my voice on the mic. The more comfortable I became with my voice on the mic, the more comfortable I became with my voice on the page Right. And so there was sort of this, like my other favorite cousin, it was like an awakening of my knowledge of self, of my voice, of what poetry could actually do. So I have this ability to like speak words that like land on people you know what I mean and have them feel some kind of way right. A lot of, especially MCs, might believe in this idea that we have like vibrations right. That Coke you know, right, shoot out of our mouth right, and it lands on the audience and it can make them, you know, in the same thing with a preacher right, right, a preacher's up there hooping and hollering and it's making people feel that way. I'm like, ah, if I can feel that same way when I'm on stage and if I can feel that same way while I'm writing, then that means there's God presence in this work.

Speaker 3:

Right, right, okay, okay, how about saying let's, we can clap for that y'all we can clap?

Speaker 4:

Y'all should see my mother's face right now. She said all right. She said, oh okay, all right, okay.

Speaker 3:

He be reading. I get it. So about that. Okay. So in the lines of performance, so like for this book, and I'm trying my best to like ask these questions in a very informed way without spoiling the book for y'all there are two separate moments in the book in regards to performance. There's this more moment where you like first attempt to compete in slams, oh whoo. And then there's like the dichotomy of that is the other right and could you speak to like. So the way I looked at it, you know, putting on my like English lit hat, I thought of it as the dichotomy between, like the how performance of masculinity yourself, can one have you judged very harshly, without any sort of like true context of who you are, and then also can have you received and affirmed, on the other hand, Wow, I did not make that connection.

Speaker 4:

She put that this is why he's here, right.

Speaker 3:

Right and y'all know y'all being like English literature and your teacher be trying to like put all this extra stuff on it and then you find out like no, that was just a bird that was it.

Speaker 3:

And nothing to do with slavery, like it was just a bird. That's how my mind be going. But like, again, you know, when you write you might not know, you know, I think you know, we thought my black church, no intercessory prayer. They say you know you don't know what's coming out your mouth, but like you know, spirit knows. So I just wanted to, I guess, check it like.

Speaker 4:

Yeah, I, yeah, I can. That's what a great link. I didn't think about it that way. All the layers shout out to writing a book in metaphors and a poet reading a book.

Speaker 3:

Okay that makes sense.

Speaker 4:

That's what it'd be. So what I'm thinking about is how. What I wanted to at least demonstrate in that book was a couple of things. The first was that I believe that there are poems that are that are, I think, sometimes, if you are a poet, that are just for you, right, like some of them just need to just stay with you. They don't necessarily belong out in the world, although there's always somebody who needs to hear what you have to say. So it's like this weird line where it's like well, I don't want to be too vulnerable, but I'll, you know, and so like, even in this book, like choosing which poems include was an act of vulnerability, right, which, if you think about it, is very antithetical, which is such an unnecessary word to use right now to like traditional masculinity right To be vulnerable as a black man is not something to do.

Speaker 4:

So punks do it's a faggots do. It's sorry, my language, that's just the language of the books, but that's what you know, it's done, and so you know. For me it was a matter of like yo, if I could be very vulnerable. The most vulnerable place that I could be, for me was an open mic man. It was interesting. Well, not no, it was actually a slam.

Speaker 4:

So in this book I make a distinction between poetry, slams and open mics, and I think it is an important distinction, only especially for educators who are doing these things with your students. Traditionally, a slam is a competition. It's usually it's competitive. There's judges, there's scores. It can look in a bunch of different ways. But in this book I write about how I go to this slam at Morgan State University and I didn't know anything about a slam, I just know I had a poem that I wanted to get off my chest. It was personal. And in the book I write about how there was rules and it was like round one three minute poem. Round two two minute poem, round three. I was like what I don't have all of this.

Speaker 4:

Right, I am not prepared and I lose. Horribly bad. And then I discover about this open mic that was taking place at Towson University called Ebony Lounge, hosted by somebody named Rebecca Dupont, who might be in this building.

Speaker 3:

I thought I saw Rebecca Dupont's site in here.

Speaker 4:

Whose name might show up in that book too At Ebony Lounge, and I learned that, oh, with an open mic, this is the space where, like, wait a minute, everybody here is here to share something. Everybody's here going to snap for you, going to applaud for you, going to care for you, ideally, because not? All the types of people are mean.

Speaker 4:

But that's when I sort of learned the conditions in which both of these things sort of work. And I'm like yo, I don't want to be competing, I don't want to compete, I just want to perform, and I think that's what I learned sort of in that process, like my poems ain't for this particular thing. I like it over here.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, no, I feel like, listen, I don't. I mean I'm slam, though, and this is also, by the way 2015, 2014, second like world slam champion by the way, but again, though, in the world, like in the world, the whole world.

Speaker 4:

I ain't competing against him.

Speaker 3:

But with that though, to Tony's point, I done got up there and done some real vulnerable poems about my mama grandmother, yes, you have. I think it'd be like two out of 10. Yeah, did you not feel that, my mama? So I get. I definitely understand that there's a space for it. Some spaces are just not ready for you know, until you even like, dig into that metaphor, like some spaces, just don't know how to receive it. Ain't that the poems weren't worthy?

Speaker 6:

It's just this, ain't the space for.

Speaker 4:

Yes, that's what it is.

Speaker 3:

And I think a lot of that book, a lot of this book speaks to that that, like the way you had to navigate in certain spaces, it's like it's unfortunate that people couldn't just accept that you couldn't be safe in these spaces. But once you got to the right spaces, things was clear. It was like oh, you know, I'm much changed, I'm still myself, but it's like now my environment allows me to blossom.

Speaker 4:

Yes, yeah, she's shut up to you, bro, yeah.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, you know be moderating sometimes. Ok, so do we want to get into some reading?

Speaker 4:

Yeah, we'll hear a little bit. Y'all want to hear some of these bars. All right, thank you.

Speaker 3:

Thank you, thank you, hey doc.

Speaker 4:

Put this down. I'm very excited about this, by the way. She just such an incredible moderator, and so I've just decided that whenever I do these book talks I'm just going to start at the beginning, just because it feels right. I just feel like y'all should just know what y'all are walking into, and people often say that usually the first page is usually what kind of grabs readers. So all right, here we go. So this is Spring 1999. And I should also mention the way this book is written. By the way, it's not necessarily chapters, but there are titles. The titles kind of serve as like transitions, right, and so I might tell you I'm about to read three chapters, but it's really just kind of three parts of the story. Yeah, so there are no chapters, it's not anyway.

Speaker 4:

I came out in the world like this bright and burning, a brilliant little black star, weighing every bit of seven pounds, seven ounces, measuring 19 and a half inches long, cessarion, cut right through Marcenter, smack a dab in the middle of hot July, on the 17th day in the year 1981. I was carefully carved fresh from her flesh at a hospital on a military base in Freehold, new Jersey, where pop was training to be an airman. Basic. Same way, same place, same space, where my sister Tamu was born, just 17 months before my whole body arrived on fire, flaming from the warmth of my mother's womb. Medical records say I was an infant prone to ear infections that raised my internal temperature well beyond a boiling fever. I was three when I bubbled over. 102.7 degrees Fahrenheit made me tug at my lobes a little too hard for Marse Comfort. Doctors put some tubes in there to help cool down the noise. They fell out a few months later while I was dancing. Circles around my shadow wound up scarring some tissue on my eardrums. Now, y'all, I be trippin' on vertigo. It's like the world be spinning around if I climb far too high and try to look too straight up toward the sky or stair too deep down beneath the Earth's belly.

Speaker 4:

I was in eighth grade when the flames brought me scarlet fever. Remember that Spread these sensitive-ass blood red bumps across my entire body, causing some pain to rise up in the middle of my chest. Mom, remember the infection. Wait a minute. Emergency room doctors said. Mom brought me in just a few minutes before the infection punched its way into the second layer of my beating heart. Legend has it my being here was a close call too. Apparently, mom 23, pregnant unplanned with me drove a four-door powder gray Dodge diplomat with tires that foolishly assumed the tread on the rubber wheel. I'm so excited because she's over here like no. Apparently, mom 23, pregnant unplanned with me drove a four-door powder gray Dodge diplomat with tires that foolishly assumed the tread on their rubber wheels were deep enough to skate slick on smooth black ice during cold winter Round rubber dummies didn't test themselves.

Speaker 4:

First Crash Me and mom us. We slid like lava on concrete water. Her belly becomes an inflated safety airbag, bracing all my bouncing. We both survived unscathed, save for the 23 railroad track stitches mom had stapled across her forehead. I remain submerged, baked golden brown, birthed by scalding summer.

Speaker 4:

Mom always tells the story of our accident whenever she's explaining to other people why I am the way I am. Her baby, funny, curious, clever, smiling, singing, dancing, joyful, carefree, bright, showy, a ball of colorful energy making life fun for us all. She'll say to them while looking at me something must have happened to him, because that boy ain't been right since. And then she'll chuckle with a sweet laugh. That don't hurt. Here we go, unlike last year when I turned 16 and pop echoed Ma's tale with a gallon of sour sugar.

Speaker 4:

That still stings me in some place. I don't yet have the language for For real. For real, I'm far too afraid to discover what it might actually mean, because whenever I think about what my father actually said, the boogeyman creeps out from some dark corner in my bedroom closet and I can't get any sleep at night. Title is pop had just gotten out of rehab again. He called to wish me happy birthday After confirming that I was indeed being a good boy by reading my Bible I was not and praying for my salvation every day. I was not.

Speaker 4:

He goes 1 Corinthians 2.9 says eyes have not seen, nor ears have heard, nor has it into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for you. I'm proud of you, son, but as a baby you cry so daggone much I thought you were gonna grow up to be a sissy or something. As if something disguised what he actually said, as if there was probable cause for concern about my safety, as if I'm not mirror to his namesake. As if there was reason to question my capacity to survive an attack from the source of saline. I tasted on tears dripping from the tip of my tiny toddler tongue, as if my center was too vulnerable and so I had to curl up into myself for comfort, as if all my screaming and hollering triggered some insecurity he had about my density, as if there was a layer of flesh and spirit I left lingering inside of mom fifteen summers ago, as if no tissue was attached to vein, blood, bone, muscle, fat or skin and therefore I was too soft and too sticky to withstand whatever hard stuff black men must make light of in order to feel strong enough to hold on to and hold up themselves. As if there was trivial possibility of my power to protect my own peace during times of war. As if I entered my physical existence with an unarmed and untrained military that was ill equipped and unprepared to battle beasts that prey on the bodies of little black boys who are unafraid to express how they really feel on the inside.

Speaker 4:

I'm gonna do one more. I don't know how much time we got. I'm in my bag and I'll give you a minute. Keep going and let my parents tell it. And let my parents tell it.

Speaker 4:

I came out curious, before crying A queer kid full of questions, complete with some kind of knowledge embedded inside the brain, holding up my big ass. Black head, I had a curved ledge attached to the back of my skull that pop former jock would wrap his hands around and hold like a football, before pretending to launch me into the air and not swirl around the atmosphere. Giggling at my father's gentle touch, ma tried smoothing out my knowledge about what her soft hands Same one. She used to grease pops hair as a teenager and twirl batons between her major at fingers at their homecoming parades. She mushed and mash what I came out knowing into more manageable size into my body, grew into itself. My parents called the back of my head a puck. I have no idea why they chose this word, as there was never a time in our lives together when hockey was a part of any discussion. As a kid I only knew a puck to be some black round thing that skates smooth on slick ice and that people on two sides of a thing with razor blade feet and long curved sticks love to beat around. Until the puck submits to being captured in a net disguise as a protected space for its safety, and this happens so much that it's only a matter of time before one side is crowned Victor and the puck is exposed for all that. It really is A piece of black property destined to be locked and stacked up inside of a cage in the dark, with the rest of the pucks and all their knowledge, until the next game time, when they will again inspire some fight about them between people on two sides of a thing, who will be cloaked and armor and will ignore how badly and beaten the puck has been and how naked and cold has been for what feels like centuries, until some black, white striped skin person with authority blows a whistle before the brawl begins.

Speaker 4:

I'm going to read this last one for y'all. Y'all, all right, I got what? Four more minutes? Oh, I'll do this last little chapter. Right about it. Oh, this little Tony, this little, my little teeth. Okay, last one.

Speaker 4:

I want to read this one in particular because I want to make sure that you understand the connection to hip hop. I get them to be 43 years old this year and hip hop is at least 50 years old. I'm going to write a hip hop in it, hi, shevon. I want to write a hip hop in it, and so I titled this chapter my Knowledge of Self. For those who need to know the fifth element of hip hop knowledge of self. The more you know about who you are, the more powerful you can show up in the world, and so I titled that this way on purpose.

Speaker 4:

My knowledge of self, the history of who I am, explains how I came to be a 17 year old senior at Duval High, where I mascot. The Bengal Tiger is the largest living cat species, although I can barely stretch my body out from beyond this five foot four inch brown border. Duval High swallows a corner block of a busy intersection in Lanham, merlin and Prince George's County, pg, greenland, partially circling around the first ring suburbs of the diamond shaped District of Columbia. For a furrow, I don't think I'm built like most of the other black boys here. I weigh in at about 120 pounds, soaking wet. With all my clothes on. I don't feel like my shoulders are strong enough to stand on, nor can I puff my chest out enough to appear as large as I believe I am. Monk keeps saying I should be enrolled in a weight on program with the chuckle that slings a different tune out of she shopping in department stores specializing in clothes for plus size women, where it is.

Speaker 4:

I was a baby who couldn't drink directly from my mother's breast, nor could I stomach milk process. Oh, stomach process milk that was squeezed from some strange cows, others so liquefied soybeans or my soul source of survival until I could chew and swallow solid foods without needing any synthetic assistance. Now the doctor says my calcium is too low and that's apparently why my fingernails which I can't stop chewing around that, all these dark brown streaks streaking their ways across them, and that's why, in seventh grade, my dentist told my mother my state of smiling would eventually need some straightening out. I entered high school in 1995 as a thin ass, black boy with crooked teeth barred up in stainless steel wires and colored rubber bands and my mother's medical insurance didn't cover. Got them taken off junior year. Now every tooth is finally sitting still in its right row, shining from its own designated space inside my mouth. Accidentally dropped my expensive ascertainer in a trash can at McDonald's. We can't afford to pay for another one. Now my bottom jaw is starting to stretch out farther than the top one does.

Speaker 4:

My face can't decide on what shade of its own natural color these acne spots to show up, as I am sweet and stale skin, chocolate chip cookie, black boy in the mirror Plus my vision got blurry during sophomore year, had to join the rest of my family and wearing prescription eyeglasses, so I can't tell what I really look like while peering through medicated lenses that layer over all the things I don't always love about myself and ain't enough base and trouble flowing through the sound waves of my weak voice. I can't thump hard enough to vibrate skyscrapers. I can't create a strong enough cocoon around myself to feel secure about my safety. When I'm around certain boys, I never speak up. When I know that some of them be speaking down to me, those slick and sly, shy moments when they quietly slither the words soft out of their sneaky, greasy mouths. Or they'll call me weak as a way to describe my peculiarly small size, my significantly troubling short stature. This always causes me to question my own strength.

Speaker 4:

To be clear, I've been called skinny by a whole lot of different people, most of whom I know love me, like Ma, who always says I am the way that I am because I eat like a bird. Truth is, I think my appetites for Ma's cooking and my anxiety about being bullied be throwing hip hop parties together in the basement of my stomach, setting the roof on fire. They never ask for water either. They just prefer to let me burn, burn, burn. I don't be that hungry for real. For real, I've also been called a bitch and a punk and a pussy and a faggot far more than a few times over the years, to ignore how often I see the boogeyman lurking around.

Speaker 4:

Some of these boys at Duval High the ones I try to avoid like Tehran who, in fifth grade, picked me last to be on this basketball team at recess. He was a popular Tawny giant with quick and aggressive moves, and all of us knew that he hogged the ball longer than anyone else should. Yet none of us ever question his power to do so. I'm surprised on the first play of the game when he passed me the bumpy orange rock and yelled out don't fuck this up, tony. I blink, I catch, I stop breathing.

Speaker 4:

No one taught me how to play basketball, know what rules to follow, and so, with both hands, palm pressed against this golden sphere of masculinity, I bounce the thing on the ground, pivoting my whole body toward the hoop, and step out on both my left and right feet, double dribble cuts through the air and slice my wobbling legs in half. I tripped over myself and fell to my knees, landed on my back and rolled on my right side. The black top rub the thin burn on my elbow. The impact didn't hurt as much as saying everyone else pointing their fingers directly at my sad little brown face, laughing at how funny of a man I was going to be. To make matters worse, tehran shadowed over my shine and screamed to my soul what the hell was that, tony? You can't do stupid shit like that. Go sit your gay ass down somewhere. Then he pushed both of his fists into my chest using a force lighter than gravity, disrupting my equilibrium, and so I fall again, only this time I land on my butt and slide backwards across the gravel, tearing more holes and my gently used wardrobe. Stop it. Tehran, screamed out.

Speaker 4:

Shavon, one of my classmates who I think also knew something about playground bullies. She ran over to me with her long arms extended, publicly acknowledging my humanity, and with her sweet hands help hoist me back up vertically. I could only look at the stitches loosening across the top of my off brand sneakers as I sequestered myself to sit on the sidelines where all the girls were safer. I didn't cry on the outside as I watched some of those girls cheer for their favorite playground bully boyfriends the ones who told me I got a cage bird chest made of bouncy rubber and butter fingers attached to the ends of my flimsy bent wrist. They say these are the reasons why I can't catch, pitch or run for shit. Thank y'all, thank y'all, we good. Sorry, I know there's time for questions and stuff, but you're all right, so please read the book. By the way, get the audio book. That sounds like that. It's like that.

Speaker 2:

That was fantastic y'all. Please, please, please, another round for Dr Tony Keith. Thank you.

Speaker 4:

Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thanks, thank you.

Speaker 2:

An incredible conversation. Brother Rishi, you're definitely doing your thing, but we definitely want to make sure we open it up for audience Q&A for the last 10 minutes before we get things set up for the author signing. So if anyone is interested in asking a question, please line up on the left here I will hold the mic. Come on down. Come on down, I line okay, there we go.

Speaker 4:

This is Louise.

Speaker 6:

Capitos.

Speaker 3:

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Come on Okay. I'm guessing people have, oh, okay.

Speaker 4:

Did you have to get a line, cousin? Hi doc, Congratulations first of all. I follow you on Instagram. Oh my gosh, I'm sorry, y'all Dancey books, right? Oh, I love you, okay, okay hi.

Speaker 7:

I love you more. You're so cute. I love the conversation that you had about performance and I was curious about, as you said, the kind of the duality between performance and authenticity, and I was also wondering, I guess, how you communicate your true self when you're both performing as well as your writing, and how do you choose what to hold to yourself as well as what to share with the world.

Speaker 4:

Wow, beautiful question. Thank you so much. The first thing that pops in my head in terms of is I always tell folks that if you see me perform in my eyes close, I have transcended, Like I'm in a different sort of space, right? So for me, poetry that's shared before is very spiritual, and so I think about that so much in terms of, like, you know, what I want to give of myself is a spiritual act, and so, like I can't let out too much, right, and you also can't give all that energy out to a whole lot of people, and so, like, I protect my peace in that regard. And so I think, when it comes to performance, again, it's a matter of like, wait a minute, this is a spiritual act. This isn't so much about entertainment. And even when writing this book yeah, books are for entertainment, but I wanted folks to sort of experience a spiritual kind of thing, right, and hopefully I mean whatever that may, and I'm not talking about Christianity, right I mean like something in your gut does a thing. Your heart turns, it makes you think of something you might wonder, you might dream, but I wanted it to have that particular effect.

Speaker 4:

And so, when it came to writing how the Boogeyman became a poet. I only included things that kind of answered that question of like, how did the Boogeyman become a poet? There's so much stuff that I wanted to include that didn't necessarily fit with that. I mentioned this story when I was in the Planet Word. But my family, you know, we used to host our family unions at Kennevark Aquatic Gardens, Nofish, Shaddeenwood, Coral Street and okay, and they were so much fun and I wrote a whole chapter about our family unions, y'all like how dope they were. And my editor was like with Tony, how does that relate to how the Boogeyman became a poet? You know what I mean. Like this is great, I'm Chuck Brown, yeah, but like why does this matter, you know? And so that's what it kind of came down to was like including for the readers things that will connect to the title, that will connect them to the whole purpose of the book, the spiritual purpose of the book.

Speaker 4:

Again, I didn't necessarily write this for your entertainment. I had to process this. You know I wrote this book almost as an approach to writing an essay. It was more how did the Boogeyman become a poet? Like, how did I become someone so unafraid to be who I am in public. How did I get there? So I didn't know until I was halfway through this book what the Boogeyman metaphor was, even about. Right, yeah, Thank you for that. All right.

Speaker 2:

Next question.

Speaker 4:

Hello, hi, louise, hi, so even when you're a former student, show up. It's a cool thing.

Speaker 5:

Yeah, it's great, okay. So apparently you work in an education field back then. So I was just wondering it's like being this vulnerable and seeing people in education from different walks of life and I'm just wondering about like how I guess you talked about relating to people like that so I'm just like how can I try to say people from different walks of life just find this common ground connection?

Speaker 4:

That's a great question, louise, and the first thing that I think about is I can't think of one teenager that is not wrestling with some aspect of their identity, right, whether it's their gender, their race, their culture, their whatever. But there's sort of some figuring it out moment, and so, for me, when I thought about writing this book, I really thought about any person who's trying to figure something out about themselves being able to read what's your Boogeyperson? Who's your Boogeyperson? Who are the Boogey? What are the things that are haunting you and you're being your great? If you haven't.

Speaker 4:

I don't want to assume everybody got a Boogeyperson, but I know for sure I wasn't free until I wrote this book right, and so well, I'm still not fully free, but anyway. But there's a freedom that exists in me because I wrote this book and so I think that I wanted young people and even adults to experience that too, which is why I wrote it in verse, which is why I included the stories that I did, which is why I wrote it in such a way. I was like, yeah, I want young people and adults to just find themselves in this. My editor is a slightly younger, white, straight man and he gets this book right, and that's what I meant by that, because he also is dealing with his own stuff too. So I think it comes down to we all got stuff, louise, right, yeah, right about it, awesome, fantastic.

Speaker 2:

Next question.

Speaker 6:

Hi, Tony, Hi, my question to you today is how did your early poverty, racism and homophobia affect your mental health?

Speaker 4:

Yes, sister, that is that, is it? So the first thing that I'll tell you is you know what it did, Because I have this language now. I internalized racism, I internalized homophobia, I internalized a poverty mindset I believe that being too black was bad. So I co-twitch my language. Right, I began to adjust and perform so that I could act a certain way in school and around teachers. Right, I began to adjust the way that I could perform so I can appear straight. Right, and it was a matter of adjusting my performance because I began to internalize, I began to like it's hate, it's, you know, it's a hate, and I thought that there was an actual, a hierarchy of race and I was on the lower end. Right, I thought that there was a hierarchy of sexuality and I was on the lower end.

Speaker 4:

The same thing about like and again, I want to be clear, because I want to make sure. I think the language probably is just poor, not poverty, because, again, we always have. We needed a shout out to my you're amazing woman. Shout out to my mother I'll clap for my mom. We always had what we needed, and I do know that there are people who like experience, like abject poverty. I just want to be clear, like in terms of language, but I do know what it's like to not have right, so I grew up with that, believing that I'm someone who's probably never going to have right. So that's how it affected my mental health is I internalize all these things? And again, I don't know if you were here, but shout out to my therapist, who helped me unpack the poems and helped me realize where I was hiding that phobia, awesome.

Speaker 2:

We have one last question.

Speaker 4:

Dr recently doctored.

Speaker 6:

Doctor, I have always admired your work and it has been amazing. I'm going to go back to something about coast, obviously, because that's what I studied. You know I would hey AVG.

Speaker 6:

I studied linguistics, I studied African American language and I'm always just fascinated by Tony. It's just amazing. So my question is because there are some of us who aren't free right, who haven't experienced, so we still code, switch, right. How do you what message do you have through this liberation, through the pages, for us to show up in these spaces, in an authentic space where we, we know how to navigate, we know we have that linguistic disparity, we have that identity, dexterity, but how do you, what advice do you give and how to show up authentically in a space and still command that respect? Oh my.

Speaker 4:

Oh my, oh my, oh my. The words that come in mind right now is agency and power. And so I think that what I would say is the moment, at least for me, when I discovered and I did not discover this until an adult how beautiful black language is. Right, when I read this book, there's a whole lot of alliteration and especially a lot of bees. There's a lot of black boy bubble bubble, but you know.

Speaker 4:

But what I realized is there's something very rhythmic about the way we speak, right, shout out to my enslaved African ancestors, who already had rhythm, who already had bass, who already had drum in their voice, in their ways of being so. For me it was sort of like a downloaded thing, and I think, once I get read your work and read the work of so many other scholars and linguists who study African American vernacular English, I was like, wait a minute, I'm a multilingual person, right, that means that I can move in multiple space. This is a flex. It is a flex and if you do it the right way, it can be real scary for some folks. Right and so right.

Speaker 4:

And so what I learned is what I learned is in my academic writing, I don't cool switch Right, because that kind of space, well, you kind of can't. I mean you can't, but you kind of can't, although I did, I do, and so I'm going to read an article coming to the Journal of Negro Education. It's called we Jile like sick of that shit, mo Kiel Toward the emancipation of black education. In that article I'm writing about the importance of black speech and the ways in which we need to think about this when it comes to standardized testing, because we got to stop telling black kids they speak wrong. We have to stop doing it. I know y'all, I love y'all, but every time we it's not ain't y'all let them speak. That is language, it comes out of them, naturally. How could that be wrong? Right, how could be wrong? I'm sorry.

Speaker 6:

I don't know if that was permission or what.

Speaker 4:

Even with that, you know, like as an educator, even with that like going higher and understanding that the ordering of letters is not the rules of grammar. And if our learners are still operating in the rules of grammar. They shouldn't be penalized. Yes, yes, yes.

Speaker 4:

There are cases. There are cases in the early nineties around Ibonics and African American vernacular English. There were actually like school board resolutions that allowed black language to be permissible in classrooms. That was overturned by, like a bunch of white folks who were like we don't want people speaking broken English in our classroom, but at one point it was acknowledged as legitimate language and so I put this. I wrote an AAV in here on purpose, because I want black kids to question. I want them to ask their teachers um, why is that wrong? Like I want them to challenge. Challenge the system, you know.

Speaker 2:

I don't know if that was the answer to the question, but where that came from.

Speaker 4:

This is uh so we, this family, this is one more. This is what this family, this is this, this, this, this, like this, like, yeah, this.

Speaker 2:

Where is Tay? What's his name?

Speaker 4:

By the way, in this book most people's names have been changed on purpose. Do not go looking for nobody. Do not go on Facebook trying to find nobody named Tyron. That name does. That's not a person. I have forgiven that brother, I have forgotten. It's fine. And also I must say y'all my father is a loving, wonderful man. Please know, we've we've like reconciled, like me and Papa. Good, don't go looking for him, don't. Huh, yes, yes, me and Papa have we've, you know, we've mended. Now I'm sorry, I'm sorry, don't go beating up by a.

Speaker 2:

So so, look, I do apologize. I wish we had really more time, because I want to hear more of this. This has been an incredible incredible conversation. Please yes, yes.

Speaker 2:

I got a book I highly encourage. I'm in the middle of a book right now, but I'm ready to get to this Because I'm actually considering I think we might even add it to our book club reading list this year. Because it is, it is, it is something that and, speaking as a black man, to be able to be vulnerable, and I began writing poetry young because I was trying to figure out a way to process my insecurities being bullied, being 120 pounds, trying to play football, trying to measure up to what we're told masculinity is supposed to be, and to be able to be in a place. Now and this is why I own a bookstore, because we need to find books that, as you always talk about, represents you and speaks for you and then gives you a space to be able to say you know what I am seeing, I feel loved, and it is okay that I don't have to play to somebody else's portrait of what I'm supposed to be. I can be myself.

Speaker 2:

So I am absolutely like enamored. I am all. I love what you're doing. Thank you, and I really do wish we had more time, but I want to make sure we give everyone a chance to get their book signed, to get a photograph and then give a hug and everything and still get you guys home in time and stuff like that. So and thank you all again for coming out.

Speaker 1:

Discover a world where words ignite change. Tune in to Black Books Matter, the podcast, where we celebrate the profound impact of African American literature. Join us as we delve into iconic works and hidden gems, discussing their power to shape minds and transform societies. Be ready for thought provoking discussions, author interviews and insights that matter. Don't miss out. Subscribe to Black Books Matter the podcast on your favorite podcast platform and let the voices of African American authors resonate with you.

Explore African-American Literature With Rashid and Tony
Navigating Identity and Language in Culture
Exploring Performance and Vulnerability in Poetry
Identity, Hip Hop, and Self-Discovery
Boogeyman Becomes Poet
MahoganyBooks Front Row: The Podcast

Podcasts we love