Essay originally published in Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness.
Growing up, I knew three things for certain about my father: He was brilliant, he was scary, and he was cool. These were not three separate things; they were one thing with three parts, the lines between them almost imperceptible, like the segments of a banana. He was a poet with a facility for language and an incredible memory—the ability to quote Yeats or DuBois in the middle of an argument, to recite Frost or Auden on the spot, to whistle the entire album of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. He was a large man, well over 6 feet tall, and linebacker solid, but he was light on his feet, and strangely graceful for a man of his size. He could walk soundless as a cat, appearing to glide across the room, but when he stood still he carried the weight of a mountain in his frame: we knew he could not be moved.
But it was not size alone that made him scary, it was the intensity of his gaze, how he would get quiet the angrier he got, eventually whispering as he delivered the final verdict, doling out the consequence for our crime of breaking the window with a miss-kicked soccer ball, lighting the quilt on fire, or coming home from the town swimming pool without our little brother. When he was most angry, he wouldn’t speak at all, the funk sometimes lasting for days. Somewhere in that space—between the silence, the brooding, and the brilliance—is where he created the cool.
I knew my father was an artist before I knew his birthday or where he was born. It was an obvious part of his identity, like being Black and male, yet forever unspoken. (Like his first name, we never dared use it.) But even without the term, I recognized the behaviors early and came to accept them as part of who he was. They rarely, if ever, got questioned. He spent a month each summer at an artists’ colony and most of April (Poetry Month) on the road giving readings. He typed our birthday cards and gave out couplets as gifts, taught us poems to recite at bedtime instead of prayers. We learned from a young age never to throw away envelopes, since my father often started poems along their edges. A list of words that in other houses would be a grocery list—milk, eggs, butter, bread—in our house meant an opening stanza: psalm, syncopate, skeleton, scream.
Even in casual conversation, word choice was everything: not angry, homicidal; not happy, euphoric. Words seemed to melt in his mouth like ice cubes; something cold and hard like exegesis softened on his tongue, became fluid like water, and we began to drink it in. He made words a tangible thing, delicate and pretty, like flowers, and suddenly our vocabularies bloomed. In fourth grade I knew the word opaque, by sixth grade, insouciant.
As children, we learned something else about our father, the artist: not to talk to him while he was working. Which really meant: while he was reading the newspaper, typing a postcard, listening to music, whistling, talking on the phone, flipping through a magazine, staring at a piece of art, rolling quarters, watching highlights from a football game, taking photographs, reading a map, opening mail, or telling a story. All those activities—pretty much everything we saw him do—were in one form or another, a preamble to the work.
We learned early on that while other fathers went to an office to work, our father went into his mind. Because of this, it appeared to us that he was always working, when in truth, he was more likely thinking about work, dreading work, or dissatisfied with the work he’d already completed. He fought work like a boxer, alternately dancing around the poem with a playful, almost teasing attack, and then beating it down with a series of jabs, a right hook the final blow to finish it off. Part poet, part pugilist. All this is what made him an artist, but it was also what made him cool.
The instability of his moods made him cool as well: To be unpredictable and unknown in any form is the ultimate embodiment of cool. We did not know how to anticipate his moods or what exactly would elicit them, so we were always waiting, expecting them to arrive like a snowstorm. There were common triggers: running late to the airport and rushing onto the crowded plane, the offense of the small seats; a long wait at a restaurant; bad weather; an unexpected phone call; being asked a question he didn’t want to answer, one he thought you should already know, or one he was certain he had already answered. The uncommon: an argument with my mother; a car accident; my grandmother’s death. His reaction to these events—the shutdown, the silence—is what made him inaccessible to us. He was a tree we could not climb, a land we couldn’t conquer. In being unattainable, he somehow became cool.
I don’t think it was intentional on his part, that he wanted to be “cool” in our eyes, but it happened nonetheless. It was part of his persona, perhaps created by us as a way to deal with or understand that which we could not understand. We knew he loved us; we knew his periods of silence and the dark moods that accompanied them were not our fault, but were the result of stress from his students and the politics of academia, to the frozen marriage that no amount of sunshine could thaw, to the demands of creativity, the result of worshipping at the alter of the muse, whoever or whatever that might have been.
Today he might be called depressed, but that word was never uttered in our house. To us he was moody or in a funk, quiet, withdrawn, even angry—but not depressed. To use such a clinical term would have been to look down on him, to judge him, pathologize him, and thus make that part of him somehow strange, foreign, and wrong—make it something that had happened to him, like a sickness or curse that would then need to be addressed and possibly extracted. And the notion of that was even scarier than he was. No, we needed him to be cool, because we not only understood cool, we admired it. We could look up to a cool father, even when he ignored us, but not to a mean or a depressed one.
As we got older, these ideas spread to all the other artists we knew, mostly my father’s friends and colleagues. We respected their talents and valued the art that resulted, though we often didn’t understand it. Like the artist, the work itself was unknowable to some degree, unachievable by the common man, and the artists had something else in common: they were alike in mood. Sullen, temperamental, detached, and passionate. They were what my father often called crazy. Unlike depressed, “crazy” had cache, and it was thrown around like a compliment in their circles. To be crazy was to be loved. My father would frequently say, “Man, he was crazy,” but what he meant was: He was brilliant, he was bad, he was beautiful. He was unparalleled; his like will never come again. My father once said the same phrase standing at the foot of Egypt’s Great Pyramid of Giza—“Man, that’s crazy”—and I understood that he meant the same thing.
That was the first type of crazy: the state of being brilliant. The second was an event of craziness, when someone just “went crazy.” My father would laugh as he told us about a doped up jazz musician or a drunk poet, stories that always ended with someone in a fight in the alley of a bar, something scary, violent and passionate about to occur. He never said it, but we could tell by the sound of his voice, the light in his eye, the sly smile, that it was, in fact, cool to him.
By his account they were always fighting over the same things—women, drugs, music, and money—but as I got older I began to see that the deeper fight was within each individual. They were fighting not only to assert their identities, but to create them, to solidify and define their myths. They were making the stories of who they were—to themselves, each other, and to the outside world. They were Black, which was to be an outsider; they were artists, which was to be misunderstood; they were crazy, which was to be brilliant, unstable, dangerous. Instead of ruining their reputations, these struggles with addiction—alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling—often heightened their legendary status. But from there the path grew predictable: The craziness increased, the stories grew in number and intensity, the behavior became even more erratic.
Perhaps the link between artist and addict is that both are seekers, not only looking for pathways normally denied, but for avenues that didn’t previously exist, that others don’t (or can’t) even see. Perhaps we share certain personality traits, and like my father and his friends, a common dark temperament, a touch of super-sensitivity, keen perceptions, and boiling passions. As artists, we seem to desire like no one else; a desire that often pushes us to the point of madness. We don’t just feel a range of intense emotions, we feel the need to express them to others. Express as in expel. Rant. Rage. Purge. Get them out of our heads and bodies and into the world. Onto the paper, the canvas, the keys. Get it away from us, we seem to be saying—this pain, this joy, this madness; take it so we no longer have to carry the burden. Because we can’t carry it alone, and we can’t keep it inside.
What a paradox: Kept inside, the pain is poison; but when artists let it out, especially Black artists, let it out, it’s genius. But genius is not a typical state with normal expectations; it’s acceptable for a genius to act (or actually be) crazy. In fact, we often want that in our Black artists. We expect them to be crazy, love them more, in fact—deeper, better—if they are. While we are afraid of the darkness that the artist appears to create from, we love the creation. It is a mystery to us. And when solving a mystery, the answer—sometimes obvious, sometimes inconceivable—is often not as interesting once we understand it. We don’t want to understand them, to see them, because to be unseen is to be unknown, and mystery is the birth of cool. So we give a wide berth around the Black artists’ mystery, granting them space and air. We don’t want to undercover their secrets fully, to see the face beneath the mask. To crack the facade of cool.
And so we romanticize the black or blue moods until the genius withdraws into the cave and we don’t hear from him or her for years; then we get restless and begin to lose faith. We are always open to the return, of course, but we fear, in the meantime, that they have been eaten by the bear that also hibernates in that cave. When they don’t return, when they trade in their art for drugs, addiction, suicide, we are often devastated, but not surprised. How long can a person live in a cave without becoming a bear?
Black blues has become more than a myth in our culture, it’s become a product, another commodity we package and sell to the mainstream about who we are, not with the intention of being better understood, but of becoming human in the eyes of white America. We suffer, we bleed, we cry—therefore we are. Every American may not understand the need to do this, but the legacy of African Americans in this country (yes, I’m talking about slavery) is to always have the existence of our psyches in question. As black people, we wear masks, some that say, I’m okay, I’m normal, I’m non-threatening, and others that say, I’m strong, I’m invincible, I’m cool. We hide in plain sight.
We may choose to wear masks, but the power of our very presence in contemporary American society gives us the opportunity to show a wide range of emotional expressions. Surpassing all other labels, Black artists are human beings—living, breathing, passionate souls. Cool has never meant cold. We respond to loss and devastation with the same fervor as anyone else, and so there is no disputing our humanity. But, being artists, we take it one step further: We turn our loss, our heartache, into art—we give it life. So it then exists beyond our own bodies (our own selves) becoming timeless and universal. That transformation, that artistic creation, is the ultimate form of power—the ability to take something intangible and make it real. What, in the end, is more cool than that?
Clinical depression, a psychological state that requires diagnosis and treatment, is quite different from a funk an artist intentionally falls into, hoping to access a well of creativity previously unavailable. But for some, the two terms are invariably linked. Was my father depressed during my childhood? Perhaps. Would medication and therapy have helped? Probably. Would they have affected his creativity? Possibly. But that was a gamble he was unwilling to take. And I can’t say I blame him.
Sure, it would have been nice for him to smile more and brood less, but not at the expense of his art. If the upsets in his life (the losses, the heartaches) led to the creation of beautiful poems, who am I to say that wasn’t a worthwhile trade? The legacy in the library is what remains, which today seems as important as the stories my brothers and I also carry. In enjoying his poetry—like we enjoy Morrison’s prose, Baldwin’s essays, Coltrane’s riffs, Pryor’s jokes, or Basquiat’s art—we are enjoying a piece of his pain as well: the artistry that was born of that pain. We look at those artists as we look upon our mothers during childbirth: We don’t want them to suffer in order to bring us into the world, but we are damn happy to be alive.
I once asked my father why he became a poet. “I had no choice,” he said. “Poetry chooses you.” Perhaps the only choice the artist has is whether to accept the gift as a blessing or a curse. My father seemed to think it was both, and he accepted all the associations—from crazy to cool—that came with it. Though it may have compromised some of his most intimate relationships, it did not compromise his most fundamental creed: that above all else, the art must survive.