If you are a regular reader of this blog or a fan of the live show then you know why I do this. You know why I think it’s so important to share our experiences – no matter how raw, real, ugly, or humiliating. But telling the stories is only the first part – to make the most impact what we really have to do is listen.
Much love, Erin
I’d like to introduce you to John S. Blake, poet, student, family man, teller of truths, survivor…I asked him a lot of questions. Here are his answers.
When you think of an accomplished poet what kind of images come to mind?
Nikky Finney’s acceptance speech for her 2012 National Book Award stands out. Roger Bonair-Agard reciting his poem, “The All-Black Penguin Speaks”. Also, during talks I’ve had with him about craft and art, perceptions of success and how said perceptions can destroy a writer, publishing and a poet’s endeavors, Mr. Bonair-Agard reminds me regularly “Bredren” he says “remember the work is all that matters”. When I hear “accomplished”, I think of Patricia Smith and how her jazz-like diction turns emotions into weather at her live readings. I think of Sharon Olds and the triumphs she’s written about time and time again, conquering the abuse of her father and her mother’s passivity.
What about a junkie? A street hustler? Gang members? Moms and dads? Murderers? Sisters and brothers? Teachers?
My answer to all these would be my family. I was born sick (that was the term for being born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and addicted to heroin. My father was smart enough to graduate high school before his seventeenth birthday. With racism the way it was in his era (50s, 60s), I’m sure he was confident that the only way he’d ever have wealth was the risk prison and earn money by illegitimate means. He didn’t even know his social security number, never had a license, and wouldn’t have known what FICA meant on his deathbed. My mother—a white woman married to a black man—knew full-well her family would have no easy path to prosperity, so she too assisted my father any way she could in their endeavors; brothels, drug dealing, numbers running. Funny, many would label my parents’ actions reprehensible, but when Patricia Arquette does it with Christian Slater, America called it “True Romance”.
bell hooks, Cornel West, and Noam Chomsky are the first three, simply because I believe they three have figured all of this out. Then, there’s the leaders who honestly still tried convincing the rest of us; Malcolm X, Zora Neale Hurston, Winnie Mandela, Ghandi, Mandela, Steve Biko, Fredrick Douglass, Lincoln, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Nikky Finney, James Baldwin, Toni Cade Bamabra, Alice Walker, Kiese Laymon, Jesmyn Ward, and Roger Bonair-Agard.
These are people who have placed my feet in the fire of social change, have dared me to live beyond mediocre, who have—with words in an order only they could have arranged—subtly commanded me to be responsible for my breaths.
In the answers to these questions we meet the characters in the real-life story of John S. Blake and his remarkable journey from bi-racial kid growing-up on the streets of New York to foster kid, to junkie, to poet, to husband and father, to teacher, to student. As we all are, John is the product of his time and his parents’ pain, persecution, perseverance; and no doubt, the intervention of some divine power that placed him here for the purpose of learning life’s toughest lessons. Lessons he had to learn so that he could teach the rest of us. Every detail of this story left me speechless. When I sat down at a Starbucks in Glen Allen to talk to John about his remarkable life and work I could not have imagined the stories I would soon hear that he told with humor and honesty. But in true “it Runs in the Family” fashion his story has been lived so it can be told. John is the newest inductee into the “over sharers club.” I am so grateful to him for his openness.
John stands around 6’5ish with a big, welcoming smile. He’s wearing a VCU t-shirt reflecting the major accomplishment of his year – completing his Freshman year of college. This 45 year old recovering drug addict and alcoholic takes particular pride in this achievement. If you didn’t know you’d think John was a professor with many degrees and a life spent inside the pages of a book or walking the halls of great institutions of learning – brilliant, well-read, and thoughtful. We’ve been acquaintances for a couple of years and Facebook friends so I already knew that he’s an activist committed to social justice, racial equality, and that his bullshit detector runs pretty hot. He was fascinating before I heard a single word of what he would tell me over the next two hours.
John’s life began in the projects of New York City as the youngest child in his family. His parents’ split when he was young and he spoke of the 3 instances when he spent any significant time with his dad. His father was a hustler – a black man in the 70’s using his natural business acumen and street smarts to piece together a living. He worked hard but always lived under the radar outside of the traditional confines of life. John’s father taught him to play chess when he was five in a single afternoon – and quickly turned that into a hustle charging grown men to play the “child genius” on the street. In a different time with different opportunities he could have been a captain of industry. Instead he became a drug dealer – then his own best customer – and died too young.
John’s mother was equally industrious, tough and tragic. On her own and pregnant – the victim of incest and rape – at 13 she showed up in Harlem and was “adopted” by a local hair salon owner who gave her a job and helped her get on her feet. She had five children and was hardened by disappointments, bad men, and trauma. Yet, she worked multiple jobs, became a nurse’s aide and used the resources at her disposal to make a life for her children. She struggled with addiction and mental illness which led to a fateful night in which she murdered two of her elderly charges.
When his mother went to prison John was a young teen. He spent the year leading up to the trial not telling anyone, living in their apartment, caring for himself and avoiding foster care at all costs. His older siblings provided some support but they were all in gangs and dealing drugs. It all fell apart when his mother was convicted and the principal of the school saw her on the cover of the newspaper. John was sent into foster care at 14 and released at 18 as a “success story” or so he was told by his case worker. All that means is that he would no longer receive any form of support and he was completely on his own.
In the years to follow, John fell into the depths of heroine addiction. When we began talking he said people always talk about not having “time” to do the things they want to do like writing in particular. He explains that he has little sympathy for that argument. If being a junkie taught him anything it was time management and focusing on a goal. He had to make $250 per day to support his habit. If he could be a junkie and still figure out how to do that then we can find time to write for 30 minutes, or exercise, practice piano, read a book – whatever the goal. Interesting perspective.
John’s life was saved in a moment of divine grace – or terrifying coincidence depending upon your beliefs. He was moments away from suicide by o.d., the day his mother died, when the woman on the other side of the television screen called out to him in a poem and told him he was not done yet. Marty McConnell’s words spoke directly to him through – “Instructions for a Body.” And he took them to heart. He did not die. He became a poet
Several years later he was teaching poetry to a group of very motivated teens who had worked hard and received the opportunity to travel to a competition. This would be a several day long venture and John, while dedicated to his craft and his kids, was still using and concealing the extent to which his addiction ruled his life. He said there was no way he could go with them and chaperone a trip for four days. He couldn’t go that long without using. John told them he couldn’t go that long without drinking. It was no secret to anyone that he drank heavily but they had no idea about the depth of his addictions. With his declaration those kids were pissed. They loved and respected John but they would not allow him to ruin their big break because he couldn’t get his shit together. One young lady called him out and told him point blank that he had to quit using. So he did. Just like that – and everyday since – for the last 6 years
John got married a couple of years ago. He is raising daughters. He writes and teaches poetry. He mentors and inspires kids from places like where he came from – and pretty much anyone else with a heart and a brain who takes the time to really listen. John is a truth teller and a warrior for equality. As of today he’s been cigarette free for almost 2 months. And he just completed his Freshman year of college – which he documented daily on Facebook
In addition to his life story, I asked John to answer some questions from his very unique perspective:
What can you say about second chances?
I don’t remember second chances, but I can tell you the one-hundred-seventy-second chance is awesome! Seriously, I believe our only way on this rock is by forgiving everyone for everything, every time.
Who is your favorite poet? I’m going to simply say Nikky Finney. Absolutely the most important poet right now
What did/does poetry reach in you that was/is different from anything else? Permission! I saw a heart liberated, free to feel. Something I found nowhere else in my life.
What do you tell your children about your childhood? It wasn’t as good as theirs! I tell them I wasn’t allowed to express my opinion, I wasn’t allowed to feel, and I was never allowed to tell anyone about our struggles as a family. My mother called the latter “pride” but I know now it was simply shame.
Why do you think it’s important to share your story? To remind myself that the hardest part was living through it. I refuse to fear the resurrection of emotions. When rememories play on a random wall—like a movie screen—I affirm that the show is not a horror flick, but a heroic narrative.
What pisses you off? Seven Black churches burning down in one week, in six different southern cities and not seeing any of this news on CNN. Apathy, white privilege, Supreme Court Justices Scalia and Thomas, the Confederate flag and the lies throughout history that are tied to it in feeble attempts to make it anything other than a symbol of oppression and southern paternalism.
What makes you feel hopeful? Listening to children read original works of literary art, since I truly believe the closer we come to open communication the sooner we’ll learn to ignore differences in geography, Gods, culture, and physical characteristics. Conversations like the one we had at Starbucks. That’s what I believe we all need; over-priced coffee produced through global stratification, and talks about how we can make this world feel, feel, feel. I like being human with others, I live for the authentic moments.
Here’s a link to John’s TEDxRVA from 2013: