What Others Have Said
Anjail RASHIDA Ahmad
Award Winning Poet, Educator and Activist
The assistant professor sits behind her desk.
A boy appears in the doorway.
"Hello," he says. More question than statement.
"You have something for me?" asks the professor, her voice climbing to a child’s
"Your check stub," he says, stepping to her desk.
She reaches out and takes her pay.
The secretary’s son slips away.
"Little cutie pie," the professor says.
She’s right. He is cute.
And she is blind.
"There is another way of seeing," she says, "other than with eyeballs."
She changed her name to Anjail Rashida Ahmad when she was 25 and living in San Francisco.
"You can’t call me what you want. I’ll tell you who I am."
Anjail Rashida Ahmad's poem read at the Carolina Theater to introduce Rita Dove.
in late august before sputnik orbits its great
metallic eye over the earth
Cincinnati, Ohio, 1957
this saturday evening shimmers
her skirts just outside
the living-room window
for the brown-skinned dancers
shimmying and strutting around the floor,
heads tossed back, eyes closed against the light
while their tongues say ah-h.
done with serving the white folk, the men don
smooth cotton shirts with bright
tie tacks and silken handkerchiefs
taunting the lips of their suit pockets,
a bourbon,jigged with ice, in one hand,
the other slippered
inside a trouser pocket for the sake of style.
like the men, the women's heads
glisten with a pomade shine
while their full-bottomed skirts
and off-the-shoulder blouses
would make them the talk of the town
if they could make their promenade on main street.
but in these two basement rooms,
transformed for the night
into a momentary paradise,
it's a strange moon that bows
as bill doggett plays
his funky honky-tonk
for this round of swaying bodies
saying yes sir and no ma'am
only to themselves, wanting
the night to last a little longer,
forestalling sunday's bus ride
to the carlsons' or the wilseys',
where they must glide in through back doors
on invisible feet and with heads
bowed, slightly when saying
yes sir and yes ma'am
while their eyes are saying no.
The power of words. She knew it then. She knows it now, as a poet and director of the fledgling creative writing program at N.C. A&T, where she is a verb incarnate.
She makes things move, and not just because she sweeps a wide path with her white cane.
Without her, big-time poet Rita Dove would not have landed in Greensboro a few weeks ago.
Hundreds would not have gathered to celebrate Women’s History Month with verse.
A clutch of women would not have brought pictures of themselves to a branch library, where Ahmad urged them to write history with a small "h," to get personal.
The story could be in the picture, she told them, or it could be "behind your eyes," where another kind of truth is found.
See a second-grader.
Her home life is miserable. She is failing in school.
One day, her teacher suggests that maybe she can’t see the board.
The girl squints and pretends she can’t make out the chalk letters.
It’s the beginning of a long apprenticeship in not seeing.
Why would she want to see?
Why would she want to see her rape, by a young family acquaintance, when she is 8?
To see neighbors shun her family because of their involvement with the Nation of Islam — "You don’t eat pork? You think you’re better than everyone else?"
To see her stepfather push the family piano into the yard and chop it to pieces in a fit of anger?
To the girl, a piano student at the Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati, she is the piano. After that incident, musical notes look like random sticks and dots.
A couple of years later, her stepfather is gone, but the girl needs glasses to read what her mother writes on her school information card. Father: deceased.
But the girl’s real father is not dead, except to her mother, who conceived after date rape.
The girl’s glasses get thicker as the truth gets harder to face.
Her first poem?
She was in college, on a scholarship for underprivileged kids.
It was a rainy day.
She was walking across campus. She stepped in a puddle.
Wet cold soaked her shoe.
Instantly, she was transported back to childhood, in the time after her stepfather left, taking his good job with him.
She was bean-pole skinny, black, female and, now, poor.
"I was on the outside," she says. "I knew I didn’t fit in."
She slept in her coat to keep warm.
Cardboard insoles covered holes in her shoe leather.
She hated rainy days, the cardboard bleeding on her socks. She thought she had left that feeling behind, but there it was again, inside a pair of new shoes.
"Something about that was very fragile to me. It showed me how fragile our consciousness is. One moment I could be happy. The next moment I could be sad."
She ran back to her dorm room and wrote "Suddenly."
Over the next couple of months, she wrote seven or eight poems. Most were plastered with images of black power, like her walls, like herself.
She wrapped her head and hips in red broadcloth, laid the colors of Africa over her shoulder, slipped dark shades onto her face and read her work at a black poetry festival.
People, white people, told her she looked like Angela Davis, with her big natural Afro.
Then, as suddenly as they came, the poems vanished.
She didn’t care; she was on to other things. Photography, disc jockeying.
A few months later, she dropped out of school, lost.
At 52, Ahmad wears her hair shaved close and covers her body with practical clothes. Loose tops. Black pants. Blue pants. They go with everything.
She wears no dark glasses to hide — or announce — her blindness.
Her eyes are brown. At close range, they find your eyes with amazing accuracy.
You almost forget.
On good days, she sees light, dark, silhouettes, a little color. She knows, for example, that the cover of "Necessary Kindling," her poetry book published in 2001, is pale yellow.
On bad days, she lives in a field of white light.
She reads e-mail and articles with software that says in an electronic monotone whatever’s on her computer screen.
She reads books by scanning pages into her computer.
To write, she types.
She takes a city-run shuttle to work, to church, to stores and to the YWCA, where she plies a lap lane alone.
In class, she calls roll with her laptop. A projector throws notes and Web pages onto the wall.
"If it were not for technology, I’m telling you, I would be in a federal building selling candy bars."
To know whether her students are paying attention, she listens.
To cell phones.
"All right, what’s that about?" she asked a class last semester. "Don’t jive me ’cause you think I can’t see ’cause I can give out the fattest zeros you ever saw. I can go there."
This semester, no problem. Her students are mostly respectful, protective.
"Is there a chair somewhere?" she asks softly.
Students scramble to give her one.
She avoids the big desk at the head of the room. They notice.
"She’s one of us," says junior Danah Steele. "She’s a part of the class."
She was a single mom working at a bank in Georgia when the poems quickened again. She showed them to a colleague.
Go back to school, the co-worker said.
Ahmad picked Georgia State University, gagged on its requirements, then settled on Agnes Scott College. She’d thought of it as a white girls’ finishing school, but administrators let her take the creative-writing classes she craved.
"You have talent," a professor told her. "You could make a living doing this."
A niche for the girl who’d felt boxed out for so long.
Ahmad dug deep to write.
About the shame of being a bastard child.
The hurt of being raped.
The pain of enslaved ancestors.
The strength of her family matriarchy.
Other people said the poems meant a lot to them. That was nice, but Ahmad wasn’t writing for others. She was trying to see herself clearly, even as her vision dimmed.
Glaucoma, the doctors explained. A symptom, Ahmad thought, of not wanting to see for so long.
She tried surgeries, medications, better nutrition.
Alternative therapies gave the best results, but in time, under stress, they failed, too.
Ahmad saw what was coming. She fought it for a while. Then she decided to stop running.
Blindness would catch her, and she would do what she should have done before.
Feel her way through life.
August 2000: She sits at a computer. It feels like a lightning bolt hits her left eye, melting what vision is left.
The other eye deteriorates over several months.
How can a poet — whose job it is to conjure images — be blind?
Ahmad thinks about that, too. Most of her poems were written before she lost her vision.
Now, she misses contours, action, vocabulary. Most people see a reservoir of words every day.
"Without those constant reminders, memory dissolves."
She trusts that some things won’t change. The green of grass. The range of human behaviors she once observed.
She would love to get her vision back. She believes she will.
But she’s not eager to forgo the lesson she is learning: that the truth — the heart of a thing — makes itself known in many other ways.
These are the things she taps now, in writing, in life.
She feels the presence of objects, the size of a room, the intentions of people.
"Everything gives off energy. Thoughts can be felt, too."
Tell her you’ll see her tomorrow, then pull a no-show, and she won’t be surprised. She’ll have heard it in your voice the first time.
"From my point of view, there are no secrets," she says. "There are things I get to know about people that I can’t say. I keep it to myself. I can’t help it if I see it."
She knew she was coming to Greensboro before it was official.
In late 2002, she was living in Missouri, about to receive a doctorate when she ran across an online posting for the A&T job. She dismissed her chances but stored the information.
A month later, her cursor hit it again. Something had changed.
"I had a feeling I was supposed to apply for it."
She gathered a packet.
"When I sealed it, it was over. I knew I got the job."
The first time she touched Rita Dove’s hand, at a writers’ festival in Georgia, she felt the jolt. It was as if Dove, yet to be named U.S. poet laureate, concealed a buzzer in her palm.
Would the buzz be there 14 years later?
A knock on the dressing-room door.
A palm extended, lightly touched.
No shock this time.
Small talk. Thanks for coming. Not at all; it’s a wonderful thing you’re doing.
The passing of a check.
Goodbye. Hands on shoulders, cheek on cheek.
"That was a nice gesture," Ahmad says later, waiting in the wings of the Carolina Theatre.
It’s her time.
She can barely see the blazing stage lights above. Her heart is hammering.
First a poem.
Her fingers curl over the edge of the lectern.
She recites from memory.
Applause wells up.
She introduces Dove, takes an elbow, steps down to take her seat.
She has felt her way to the right place.
Maria C. Johnson, Staff Writer, Greensboro News and Record
Anjail Rashida Ahmad, PhD
Director and Associate Professor,
The Creative Writing Program at A&T
North Carolina A&T State University
Greensboro, NC 27411
Tel: 336.334.7771, ext. 2370
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com
Copyright (c) 2010. Anjail Rashida Ahmad. All rights reserved.
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