Paul Robeson
The Year of the Rooster
My 42nd Birthday Year

Afaa Michael Weaver
Wednesday July 14, 2010

Entering the place, it has the appearance of catacombs, the underground tombs constructed by ancient Romans. Each storage locker has a sliding aluminum door, either vertically or horizontally hinged. I have one of the largest. It's where I have kept and managed the accumulation of memories, bricks that assemble the past.

When I lived in West Philadelphia, I had a locker in a company that was not as nearly well-kept as the one I have here in Somerville. Inspired by a colleague at Rutgers, I put all that I had accumulated up to that point in there for safekeeping. When I came out from the cardiac unit where I was treated for congestive heart failure in the summer of 1995, I returned to teaching at the Camden campus of Rutgers that fall. Walking was a precarious thing, and I was making my way up the hallway when a colleague urged me to take care of my things.

"Make sure you put everything in boxes where we can find it easily," he said as he walked behind me. "Scholars will need to be able to find your things."

The doctors were not hopeful about my recovery. I was taking a whole cafeteria of meds just to be able to do this wobbly walk down the hallway, and I was advised to go home and get my papers together, to be sure of designated beneficiaries, to make whatever plans I might want for my funeral services--all the things you do for the end of the grand show we call life. This all happened in 1995, but two years earlier I had begun what seemed like a launching into wide recognition that would not end.

Playing around in my storage locker a few weeks ago, I stumbled onto a number of things from 1993, some publications, theater programs, photographs, correspondence, all the goodies I am glad I put aside in boxes and stuffed inside books over the years. It's been seventeen years, the space of a literary generation. I put the things together in a small pile and brought them back to my Somerville Cave. I was not sure of exactly what I wanted to do with all of it, except to sit it all in a stack across the room here so I can reflect.

MY FATHER'S GEOGRAPHY had come out the year before, in the fall of 1992, and one of the poems had been republished in the Los Angeles Times. I have forgotten which poem it was and do not know where I put the clipping, but I think it was "Luxembourg Garden." MY FATHER'S GEOGRAPHY was my third book, and the fourth came in 1993, STATIONS IN A DREAM. The poetry was humming along nicely, and the theater made the humming more like the roar of a small nuclear engine. I was on my way, it seemed. I was forty-one years old. Nineteen ninety-three was the year of my forty second birthday.

ROSA was produced in Philadelphia at Venture Theater in May of that year, and there was all the drama of the production you might expect with a first professional production. If you want to know what it was like go and watch Woody Allen's Bullets over Broadway, and you will know the basic plot. It was an incredible experience. Then in the summer I got word that another play of mine had won something called the PDI Award in Chicago, and so I would have two professional theater productions in one year. Life was so heady I could not catch my breath, and I did not know where it was all going. Doors seemed to be opening everywhere.

Doors had opened this way for me before. In 1985, I got the NEA, had my first book published in the Callaloo series under Charles Rowell, and was admitted into Brown's graduate writing program on a full university fellowship. I spent two months in Europe and traveled to London, where I read in Brixton for Linton Kwesi Johnson and his journal "Race Today."

Eight years later it was 1993, a year that seemed like an entry into an even larger place, a new plateau, and when I think of how that registered for me I think of how I commuted to Chicago from Philadelphia that fall to work on that second theater production, to develop the play. I had my schedule at Rutgers arranged so that I only had to be there on Mondays, and from October thru to the end of the semester I flew back and forth between Philly and Chicago nearly every week. I was coming to understand what it means to refer to a plane as an airbus.

ETA theater was the sponsor of the PDI Award, and part of my arrangement was that I had an apartment in a luxury building on the South Side owned by a well to do African American woman. From O'Hare airport to the apartment and then to the theater to work on the play with my director, the late Jaye T. Stewart.

It seemed as if everything was on the incline, but things were falling apart, too. My health and my marriage were crumbling as I was moving ahead. I was working on another Pitt book, TIMBER AND PRAYER, and in the fall of 1994, I went up for tenure as an early candidate. My department chair, a sweet man by the name of Bob Ryan, said I should have gotten tenure based on tonnage. I had two boxes loaded with documents and evidence of publication. I did receive tenure in the spring of 1995, and I received it with distinction. I was given a plaque and a research fellowship of $2000 to be used toward my writing in any way I chose.

TIMBER AND PRAYER was published just as I was receiving news of my tenure, and I gave a reading at a cafe in Baltimore to a standing room only crowd. People stood outside on the sidewalk and peered into the windows to hear me. One face was immediately recognizable. It was my son standing outside watching me.

The buttresses of ambition were holding up the walls of whatever it was I was building, and then the hand of some greater force began to pull the buttresses away, and there I was in the apartment where I lived alone in West Philly with a gazillion bottles of medicine for my heart and its vessels, wondering what it would be like to be out of my body and out of my life.

In The Catacombs I go through the stuff of over thirty years of this, of writing, publishing, and getting produced, and I am happy for the journey to this storage locker of mine. I drive most times, taking whatever rental car I have because you need the pressure of a car on the plate to open the garage door when the office is closed. When the office is open I sometimes walk down the hill from my Cave, past the Brazilian restaurant and the Judo Club to where these things from my writing life wait to be unpacked from the corners of boxes.

The Howard Gotlieb Archives at Boston University now has the greater portion of what was once in my Catacombs, some forty or so boxes of my papers, documents, and other things, including the prints of my feet taken by a nurse in 1951, right after I was born. They have my military records and the gold, silver, and bronze medals I have won in martial arts competitions. I was there the other day on business when something peculiar happened.

The Gotlieb is located in the library of Boston University, and there was a group of people being led among the glass cases containing a few items from some of the collectees. One of the more famous persons in the collection is Dr. Martin Luther King. There is also a set of glass cases for myself, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, and Franz Wright. We are all there together, entombed in glass, and the tour was standing there with the guide talking. A couple sighted me walking past to the exit door. They looked at my things in glass and looked at me, and then they began to point and whisper, making a little bit of a spectacle.

I waved politely, smiled and kept on walking, still in my body and in this life...with a deeper gratitude for the ability, the enhanced ability to walk and to breathe.


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