Sometimes there is a moment that makes you take notice.
Russell Goings's The Children of Children Keep Coming is the book for that moment, an epic poem that traces the journey of African-Americans in this country, that transcends pain and struggle and provides a vehicle for transformation, for weightiness that is light on its feet because of its music.
Like Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, The Children of Children Keep Coming reminds us of the necessity of art. People used to sit with each other and listen to poems detailing their shared cultural experience; The Children of Children Keep Coming is such a poem. In addition to the compelling story it tells, there is the richness of poetic devices in motion. Close your eyes. Bells are ringing; hands are clapping; feet are stomping. Over the course of the poem, motifs are picked up; a weightiness is gathered. Goings writes, "Is this the day / We pick up momentum?" If the poem itself is any indication, the answer would seem to be yes.
The Children of Children Keep Coming is a memorable book for a memorable moment.
This is not surprising, since it was written by such a remarkable man. I met Russell Goings when he visited Fairfield University in 1995, shortly after he returned from the Million Man March. A mutual friend of ours, Father Tom Regan, S. J., now the provincial of the New England Province of the Society of Jesus, suggested to Russ that he talk with me, since Russ had mentioned that he wrote poetry. I knew that he might stop by, but, as I recall, it was not a sure thing. I remember the day vividly. It was the middle of the afternoon, and I was busy grading some papers at my desk. Russ peeked around the door and introduced himself. He asked if I had a free moment. I said that I did, and welcomed him into my office. I put my pen down. We started talking. My life was never the same.
Anyone who meets Russ knows the dynamic force of his presence, which has served him well in the various successful contexts of his life -- professional football player, the first African-American to hold a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, the founder of Essence, the friend and confidant of Romare Bearden -- but what I was not prepared for was the force of the rough draft of The Children of Children that greeted me that day. The afternoon light shone through the window and onto his poem. There was silence as I read. Russ interrupted my reading by wondering aloud if what he had written was any good. I looked up at him. I knew I was holding a manuscript that was monumental.
We talked about many things that day -- the Million Man March, poetry, his love of family, how he rose out of poverty to take on numerous challenges and surmount them. He is, after all, a man of stories. As the afternoon went on, he told me about his vision for The Children of Children Keep Coming, how he felt that everything that he had done in his life had led to this. I told him that he was the one to write the book, that he had to write the book. He paused, and then he nodded. A few days later, I was holding a new section.
This conversation went on for thirteen years, whether at Fairfield University, over the phone, or through the mail. Sometimes I would go to open my mailbox at home, and it was stuffed with pages. Many times over the years, he reminded me that, during the years of his friendship with Romare Bearden, they had a daily conversation, even as Bearden was battling cancer. When Bearden made a suggestion, Russ acted on it. That is what you do, he said, for your teacher. Such is the force of education; such is the pursuit of knowledge. You give everything to it -- your time, your intelligence, your heart and soul. Daily he worked. Sometimes there would be a knock on my door at home, and I would find the mailman standing there. The manuscripts were so big they would not fit in the mailbox. Sometimes Russ read sections to me over the phone, and the music crackled over the wires. He recorded CDs -- and he played all the characters -- so that he could test out the interaction of the children, and see the voices join together in performance. He wrote a version of The Children as a play. As the years went on, Russ took many creative writing and literature classes with me -- particularly the courses that had anything to do with poetry -- and we held hundreds of conversations about The Children. The Children kept coming.
The voices of both real and symbolic characters speak through Goings, who is griot and prophet, a vulnerable naked soul and a writer of the epic. It is a book, it seems, he was destined to write. Every day at 3 a.m. in his apartment, he gets up to get the voices down. I often picture him there, sitting in the quietest time of New York City. I see him with his pen and paper, because he writes everything by hand. I see a man who has combated dyslexia, poverty, racism; I see a man with vision in all its various manifestations; I see a man with more than perfect vision on the football field; I see a man who used to shine shoes and who was told by the voice behind those shoes that there was something called the Stock Market; I see a man who understands money; I see a man who, as a professional football player, was fined for being late to practice because he was reading a book of poetry; I see a man who wanted to celebrate the beauty of being Black through a national magazine; I see a man who understands the heritage of Romare Bearden; I see a man who values family and friendship, who thanks God for the blessings of each day; I see a man with incredible patience, who values the importance of hard work; I see a man who believes in America. The voices speak to him, and he listens. Some are the voices of America's icons, and some are anonymous. He writes all day. Then the next day he wakes up, he listens, and he begins again.
Ultimately, Goings made a decision to use Rosa Parks as a unifying figure for the book, and rightly so. On December 1, 1955, there was a moment. Rosa Parks was tired; her feet hurt; and racism hurt. It was time. Parks took a stand by taking a seat -- both on the bus and at the table of America's democracy. This is a tribute to one of America's great heroes, and Goings pays homage through the voice of the children:
You are more than kin.
We will always be true to you.
Pride and resolve lead to you.
Our fight grows with you.
We live and die with you.
There's no force that
Can separate you from us.
You are more than kin.
From her vantage point in the poem, she can look out over history and see the promise for the future:
When the Statue of Liberty turns and
Points its bright torch in our direction and
When her arms open wider
I know the great table is set.
Both visionary and quiet warrior, she is one of America's great agents for change.
In addition to the pivotal moment of Rosa Parks, Goings praises the contributions of Black women, both famous and not. They sing; they write; they encourage; they give birth. They pick everyone up; they keep going. They enrich. Harriet Tubman gets the children on the train of the Underground Railroad; Marian Anderson sings on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial; Toni Morrison writes Sula, Song of Solomon, and Beloved. Oprah Winfrey (with the beautiful pun on her name -- win-free) talks, and people listen. In addition, The Children of Children Keep Coming has a special place in its heart for mothers. As Goings writes,
Color me woman.
Color me Black.
Color me faithful, hopeful.
Color me determined, loving.
Color my devotion eternal.
Color me mother earth.
The "I Am a Black Woman" section underscores the power of women to defy odds and to keep going for the children.
Yet men also speak of the importance of their children and of passing on their heritage. Everything is done with an eye toward the future:
God, let my son gleam in silver and gold.
Let him dream.
Let him sit under an apple tree.
Let him row from shore to shore,
Enjoying the fruits of liberty and democracy.
The poem ripples with the effects of the Million Man March, and with all the painful marches before: the march to freedom, the march to new places in history, the march to keep family together. And during that march through the generations of America's history, we hear the soulful notes of jazz and of the blues. We hear Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and John Coltrane. We hear Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. We hear Count Basie.
In addition, the book celebrates the importance of elders and history. By using the figures of Grandmother and Grandfather, Goings shows us how crucial it is that we understand and use the past. Grandmother and Grandfather frame the book, just as ancestors frame each individual. Part of this legacy is a reverence for education. Just as the elders lean on their canes, you can always lean on your education. The Children of Children Keep Coming is a book that celebrates knowledge:
No head is too small to birth a new thought,
No wrong is too bound to move to right.
No notion is too insignificant to stand in the head of one willing to die
For the right to hold knowledge.
It is only through a layered understanding of the past that you can be ready for the present moment and bear the promise of the future.
There are those who have been the keepers of knowledge, who have shared their knowledge, and who have created their share of moments. While many have been mentioned, there have been others: Phillis Wheatley and Sojourner Truth; Nat Turner, John Brown, and Abraham Lincoln; Ulysses S. Grant; Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington; Prudence Crandall and her girls; Margaret Walker and Zora Neale Hurston; Malcolm X; Paul Laurence Dunbar and James Weldon Johnson; Mahalia Jackson; Rita Dove, James Baldwin, and Gwendolyn Brooks; Lead Belly and Howlin' Wolf; Marcus Garvey; Yusef Komunyakaa, Jean Toomer, and C...
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.