In 1987, my mother took me to see a dollar movie showing of the Color Purple. Because my reading comprehension had progressed very well, she assigned me to read the book afterward and talk to my grandmother about it. I remember that on the Saturday afternoon when I showed her the copy of the book, she was planting her fall greens in her backyard. Because of diabetes, she had to be helped by my uncle Moe to be outside. My grandfather had just finished washing their long brown Oldsmobile,and was looking along in that concerned old man stare, pecking his head to see if and when he was needed.
Her best friends,Eulalah Mcdaniels and Helen Washington, were sitting with her, adding their notes as she talked to me about her journey from the nigger breaker plantations of Birmingham, Alabama to the state of Washington. My job was to take notes, asks questions about what I didn’t know, and listen. My father was gone to the streets, in a stupor in one of the many dives he loved to run and hide for 2-3 days. My mother, sitting on the inside of the red fence, looked on.
These are the people who made me, the people who sacrificed for me to have a good life,and the people who were brutalized by so much of the ordinary world.For being questioning of religious orthodoxy, Eulalah and Helen were denied church services for their funerals. In 2012, my grandfather was so badly abused by his son that he was hospitalized and later had a mental breakdown. From being abused by her parents and later my father, my mother has led one of the hardest lives I have ever know. In July of 1994, after years enduring his maddening rages and verbal abuse, my grandmother broke down and told him not to go to the house anymore; and in response he threw her down a flight of steps.
These are the people who I am thinking of right now, and the only certifiable thing I can say to all of you who are reading this is that you have helped make the last chapter to their stories not a tragic one.
They-and my mother,a conscious thoughtful ally-are part of a community known as “Up South”, people who came from the Mason Dixon line to make a better life for themselves, We are a people of scrappers who made a way out of no way to be here, who punched above our weight to survive and keep surviving, withstanding the pernicious, unspoken racism of the pacific northwest and the death, destruction and violence of the crack era.
I know I am not just my neighborhood. My concerns as a poet have always had a universal bent : to convey the world as I see it, to master my language enough to convey it in words that ring true, and to understand it in the context of the broader world around me. I am from an aggressive, swaggering old school liberalism, one that is decidedly direct about speaking truth to power and decidedly pro-active about embracing all aspects of the human experience. I appreciate that so many audiences in the pacific northwest have seen a piece of themselves and their own humanity in my art, and I am-the word can’t be avoided-humbled that so many people in the United States have done so as well.
I also like to think that my audience understand and respects that-for all my universal concerns-Up South is at the center of everything I write. There are few things in life that I take more seriously than my community: every day, I see the people who live in it overcome obstacles, carry a weight they don’t need to, and work twice as hard to survive in America, and I will never give them slop. I will never give them something on the page that says I didn’t love them enough to give them an effort. I will continue to work and study, because the sweat of my ancestors means too much to me.
It is not hyperbole to say that I’ve carried a lot in my life. Both my father’s sexual abuse and living in Hilltop when it was unspeakable took a tremendous toll on me, and ever since my grandmother’s death, I have been in and out of mental hospitals for a good deal of my life. I have struggled with a death wish in my brain that I have barely understood and only recently have come to grips with. Even in the process of being a better,more compassionate man, I have done things to myself that have broken the heart of every person who has ever tried to love me, and there isn’t any one to blame that on but myself.
But every time I have fell, I have got back up, came back, and become something better, and it is through art, work, and self reflection and care that I have done so. It has also been through love-that word too complex for the vast majority of it’s champions and detractors-that I have been able to be here; the love of my family, the love of my friends, the love of so many communities in Washington state and beyond. The success of this book is a sign that so many of you appreciate my work, where I’ve been and what I’ve gone through. It is also an investment that says you care about what I need to do in the future; and from that I will have to go to the job my grandmother gave me in 1987. My name is Robert Lashley. I will take notes, ask questions and listen to you until the day I die.