958: Alain Locke in Stoughton Hall
958: Alain Locke in Stoughton Hall
I’m Major Jackson and this is The Slowdown.
This summer, I learned of the passing of the man who purchased my very first effort at publishing poetry, a self-made chapbook co-written in college with a friend. That man was Mr. Charles L. Blockson, an obsessive collector of books and ephemera relating to Black life across the globe.
We walked into his office at Temple University; he was a historian there. Embarrassingly, we practically demanded he buy a copy of our pamphlet of poems, freshly stapled at Kinko's. But he beamed, pulled out his wallet, and shared a story about meeting Langston Hughes.
Enveloped in a disarming positivity that I’ve sought to mimic my entire life, he said, “You are the carrier of our stories. Tell them well!” Then, “Your book will always be available here for readers.” We had not even dreamed of our little collection of poems existing beyond our lifetimes. So, we heeded his words.
Today’s dramatic monologue, about another Central High alum, reminds me that poets are also archivists, storytellers who celebrate the past. We go beyond our self as subject matter to become humanity’s finest chroniclers.
Alain Locke in Stoughton Hall
by John Keene
Between their theses he writes his own. Between “the general theory of value” and “beauty consisting in ideal forms” he pens fresh hypotheses. Back, past Pliny and Mary Locke to the first ones, speechless and staggering sick with sea and living memories of sour-sour, gold- weights, delta deities ghosting into mastlines. Dread of these forlorn shores. Dread of salty tongues’ renaming them, their own names buried under winter- ed paving stones. In the spirits’ graveless ruckus, the cries of two centuries’ mute nights, he has grasped his nation’s true history: resistance and the cold- hearted ability to make oneself anew remain his true inheritance. * * * His journey from colored Philadelphia to the Square: the hero’s solitary trajectory. Within the dreamsongs guiding him from yesterday’s sorrows furl maps of righteousness and Quaker industry. Here he treads as he did through schoolyards of fists, alleyways, brick valleys of indifference. Tiny warrior, he holds little fear of being the queer exception defying local customs, pioneer minister of his own natural law. As for fools and impolitic white people, he suffers them coolly as any politico, performing the acrobatics by which he balances his days with “master minds” in Sever, nights at the library, the Boylston laboratories. Someday some will claim they knew him well. Some days he thinks they’ll recall him more swiftly than Lewis, the footballer, the agile scholar and gem-eyed DuBois, the Boston-born rebel Trotter. * * * You are the new emblem of Negro genius. You are the affirmation of the plural cause. You are the angel gliding between histories you must use and those that silence you, man, African, American, Harvardian, human. Amid this desert of touch, threadbare society of friends who can never truly comprehend or love you, amid the arid propositions of Kant, Plato and Aristotle, Hegel and Santayana, which once might have been your sextants, you chart your passage into the bay of your people’s stories, voyage of a mind and vision honed. Sunday now, and distant bells summon hungry souls. Freedom is sailing by the compass of possibility, fearless, even if with no ship or sea at all. You will stay and write until your heart runs out. You will take this dark knowledge and spread it.
"Alain Locke in Stoughton Hall" by John Keene from PUNKS: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS © 2021, John Keene. Used by permission of The Song Cave.