April 8, Poem 8 - Listening (for Savion Glover)
“im to blame for this. I feel that it has not been presented as fun because my approach can be so internal…”
Savion Glover (on the public image of ‘hoofing’)
Before buck & wing or soft-shoe; before
Bill Robinson and definitely before
Fred Astaire – before Lindy Hop or any way
to code shuffle, ball, change, sambo, darkie; before
black dancing had to carry the weight
of black face, before Bamboozled
there were drums.
Before Europe made overboard mermaids
of millions of Africans – before flat-foot
buck and black faces on Broadway
there were drums – and drums talked
and drums spoke loud in three tones.
Drums moaned when squeezed and whispered
across villages. Stretch goat skin across
wood and collaborate with the hands
and there are three living things
colluding to birth alphabets.
When you’re trying to make
people work for free, you can’t
have undecipherable alphabets
on the wind. You must know
exactly what is fact at all time
but it’s bad business to be always
cutting off the feet of your workers
and well-worked feet, moan.
well-worked feet – whisper
terrible things into the night.
Well-worked feet invent alphabets
under your very noses.
Before the Irish became white
and lock-step. Before white was sure
what it wasn’t, the Irish jigged, jumped,
burnt cork and fiddled. Europe’s
niggas were also in the business
of the body’s new languages.
Say Charlie Clarke, say George Primrose,
say niggas had no drums, but they
had night – ask Nat Turner.
At 50 Broadway ‘discovered” Bill Bojangles
Robinson and paired him with the only
white woman America would tolerate
- a child, Shirley Temple – but in 1900
Bill Robinson hollered out a challenge
at Irish Henry Swinton and got straight buck
got ragtime and straight-backed – whupped
that ass – and every American Negro code
involved forever in shutting down anything
that might sound like a drum been making
a tool of black man’s dancing ever since.
The Negro is lazy. The Negro is shuffling.
The Negro is good for nothing but singing
and dancing. See the Negro grin. See the Negro
sambo for whitey…
…whole new way to move
the Negro out of the alphabet he made himself
so if Savion looks extra mad to you,
if Savion is hoofin hard like the wood
is a coffin lid he’s trying to close
shut. If he’s hunched over his own feet
head leaned to the side and sledge
hammering the stage, it’s because
he’s listening to Negro morse code
echoing through ages and ages
of wood and skin – living things
colluding to make language
living things colluding to make song
living things colluding to take our shit
Before Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em
Before Bobby Brown, before Michael
Billie Jean’d a whole new generation
into fascination with black hips and feet
there were the Nicholas Brothers, there
was West African gioube. Minstrel
before black frat brothers stepped.
And always a wave of white America
reminding us of shame, even as new
generations of their children flocked
to dance schools to learn the basic steps;
the beginning of a complex alphabet’s
history. Think Buddy Bradley creating
routines for Ruby Keeler and Adele
Astaire, but always simplifying the rhythms;
always the bait and switch of modified
code. You think you got taught
the alphabet Jack?! Never, you got taught the ABCs!
Before Gregory Hines, there was
William Henry Lane and before him,
Jim Lowe. Before Sammy Davis, Jr.,
there was Buck and Bubbles. Before
New Edition, the Cotton Club Boys.
If there are explosions out of his feet
it is because we are still at war and the frown,
the weight, the high hat of foot, the uprock
and scramble, as Savion leans almost into
the floor, are all him listening for the final
instructions for insurrection. He is listening
for Baby Laurence. He is listening
for Eddie Rector. He is listening
for Ernest Brown. He is listening
for Honi Coles. He is listening
for Jimmy Slyde. He is listening
for Chuck Green. He is building
maps of rebellion. He is revoking
shame. He is making
things right. Finding the drum’s original
moan, the song to yoke
the villages together.