Residency on this Earth… 

Peter J Harris rocks

Photo by Fana Babadayo

How do I infuse happiness – wreak happiness? – into my community engagement work? How do I execute rigorous planning? When do I push? When do I let the music move me around?

“Guided by the question, What will I live for…?, and energized by the mantra, change for the better faster, I propose a framework of programs (workshops, community service, and internships) that will teach urban male youth (middle school to high school) to tap their creativity, imagination and inspiration as indispensable tools for constructive problem-solving, personal and social change.” 

That was how I started a proposal to seek support for Inspiration House, my platform for honing ‘tools for change artists.’ IHouse is also my conceptual prism for service to young folks and for my collaborations with other social justice creatives. 

This is not fantasy curriculum. In my early 20s, I personally experienced it, helped craft it, and serviced it as part of a cohort of dedicated teachers and counselors who worked at the Park Heights Street Academy in Baltimore. 

Our educational team worked in the spirit of something I read in poet Cecilia Woloch’s April Newsletter 2022“Now more than ever, we all need to do whatever we can do to resist every kind of tyranny, and to stay grounded in those practices that keep the light and the creative energy moving within us and between us –that seems to me also a kind of resistance.”

Darryl Kennon was one of those dedicated counselors, back in 1978-79. We were all idealists, but Darryl revved up his service beyond rigorous counseling. If a student was tripping or absent, Darryl not only picked up the phone, he also walked neighborhood sidewalks as part of a dynamic and sincere willingness to step beyond the classroom and into the community.

Darryl also wrote a school song – adapted from GOIN UP YONDER! – that had us lifting our voices and drinking the sweet Kool Ade of mutual affirmation and immersion into the lives of our smart students, who nonetheless stayed wary of even a whiff of the missionary. 

If anybody asks me / where I’m going / where I’m going … to school

I’m going to the Park Heights! I’m going to the Park Heights! 

I’m going to the Park Heights … Street Academy …

I still love singing that song! Brother Kennon died on January 25, 2009. I never met his mother, Hazel Rodriguez, nor his sister, Karen Clifford (Gregory), but I did attend his standing room only public Memorial Service in Baltimore with my brother from another mother Melvin E. Brown

So how exhilarating and surprising it was for me to receive a voicemail in 2020 from one of our former students that affirmed Darryl’s influence. Check out this edited transcript of Kevin G’s August 2020 voicemail: 

“Greetings Mr. Harris. …I was your student back in the late 70s…. You were a teacher at the Park Heights Street Academy. Darryl Kennon and yourself used to play me … and the rest of the youth in the neighborhood in basketball …! You taught us how write…. I got your number from brother Mark McDaniels. We spoke to each other at the Home Depot. I always want you to know that you was really good for morale. When you left, morale went down, but Darryl Kennon and rest of the crew was able to rekindle the motivation, the spirit, and we made it! I wanted to reach out to you sir and say thank you for your mentorship. Thank you for your contribution that you gave us at the Street Academy. God bless and all the best Mr. Harris. Peace.”

Ironically, I reconnected in 2014 with Brother Mark, who wrote a blurb for my book of happiness essays: “You helped to shape my life. Brothers like you give meaning to ‘Man up!’ Because of brothers like you, I can give back what a young brother from D.C. gave me: Inspiration!”

I share these humbling quotes as resonating affirmations, not to show off how cool Darryl and I used to be. To me, Mark and Kevin were sharing genuine praise songs that affirm humanity, common ground, and a pledge to pass it on – in an Each One, Teach One educational framework that positioned us all as virtuosos who each could teach one another. Yes, no question, Darryl and I had more academic expertise and life experience, but we saw Mark, Kevin, and our other students as younger colleagues; we didn’t position ourselves as unassailable masters and the students as blank apprentices with nothing to bring to the table.

I’ll end with this CODA, an echo from my days as Associate Dean of The Claremont Colleges’ Office of Black Student Affairs (OBSA). 

Black History Month 2022 was uplifted by an unsolicited email from Dr. Thompkins, who graduated from Scripps College: 

Hello Peter, Hope this message finds you well! … You may not remember me, but I was a student at Scripps College in the late 1990s and early 2000s. You were one of the Deans of OBSA at the time. I used a motorized wheelchair for mobility. I have been looking for a way to contact you for a few years. I wanted to thank you for all of the time you spent teaching me how to write effectively and clearly. 

During my first few years at Scripps, you helped me edit my papers for school. You patiently and skillfully taught me the art and science of writing. Over time, I learned and internalized everything that you taught me and became a clear writer. 

Since graduating from Scripps, I’ve earned a Ph.D. in economics from MIT, worked for an international company where I published academic papers on a host of topics in economics, started a blog and currently write for various magazines and newspapers. At each stage in my life, whether submitting a chapter of my dissertation to my advisor for approval or posting a new entry on my blog, I have heard a common sentence: 

“Allison, you write so WELL!” 

While thanking the person for the compliment, I always think of you and send you a mental message of gratitude. Thank you, thank you, thank you for your willingness to help me become a wonderful writer! I so appreciate all of the time and energy you poured into me! 

…Have a wonderful day!”

 Oh yes, I will continue wreaking happiness – for the rest of my residency on Earth! 

BONUS EXCERPT from my book, Black Man of Happiness: In Pursuit of My ‘Unalienable Right,’ WINNER, 2015 AMERICAN BOOK AWARD: “… From now on, I’m making happiness the key enzyme, the untapped catalyst, the missing ingredient, to all of my individual, organizational and community social justice work targeted at (choose one): THE BLACK MAN, MEN AND BOYS OF COLOR, AT-RISK YOUTH. With all due respect to religion, to the greatness of the STRUGGLE, with much respect to valuable social service of every kind, getting beyond our pursuit of happiness to actually claiming happiness is thenecessary 21st Century mission to refuel ourselves, to tap the cultural creativity bequeathed to us by the African American Odyssey, and to tap our own unique personal endowments. Then we can work this wave of digital media, evolving family configurations, and demographic shifts. We can multi-task to get past survival into thriving. We can bundle effective strategies into a supple suite of approaches to living that gets into our emotional crevices and sweeps away the residue of the gross oppression that once served to fire our notions of resistance and mutual salvation .…” https://blackmanofhappiness.com/shop/

Persistence in a Difficult Time

I'd Rather be here now

Smile but be serious is how Herschell Happiness put it during one of Graham Central Station’s classic intro jams!

Working on my whisper is how I remind myself to avoid the temptation to be glib when buffeted by complex and complicated forces.

I do seek the proverbial — the concise, compressed, and concentrated — to undergird my persistence in a difficult time.

The turn of phrase infused with a culture’s deepest deliberations, elegantly representing a collective gravitas and common sense.

See the Sermon blossomed in my mind while listening to a mentor school me.

Every moment is the Beginning of the Perfect struck me recently upon waking to beautifully insistent birdsong.

Vernon and them blasted their whistles as they cycled through streets of DC, wearing their colorful bandanas. It was probably only about 10-20 brothers riding at a time, but in my fevered adolescent mind their bicycles filled every lane of every street on their mobile parade. They rode without worries about being pulled over, with no worries about being shot down. They were just exuberant teenagers, claiming their city, traversing their Chocolate City.

Riding, for sure, from one public basketball court to another to run run run all day! Between games, we slurped from the public water fountains. Sweating and swearing. Driving and dishing. Shouting ‘I got ball,’ while backpedaling on D to try and stop a swarming 3-on-1 fast break!

My sister Anna once sent me a photo of me sitting on my bike out front of Ballou Senior High School. I was the senior class president, and it was my album cover photo for sure: flyaway fro, aviator shades, backpack, captured within my suave, most subtle, 18-year-old cool.

That September I’d enroll at Howard. That summer Pops would get me a job working on the truck he drove for Potomac Electric Power Company, where we cut grass at power substations, cleaned up the trash, and swept floors as part of PEPCO’s maintenance crews.

I’d get to hang out with my father and his main co-worker Mr. Dick, aka Richard Wilson. Mr. Dick taught me how to rock a lawn mower, regardless of terrain, swapped profanity with Pops as they traversed DC and Maryland, and he religiously read the Washington Post cover-to-cover, especially during Nixon’s downfall.

My quest for happiness is not to avoid ugliness, or recurrent cycles of interpersonal or political struggles, though I’m exhausted and deflated for sure by the persistence of madmen and their violent psych games and warmongering.

My quest is the prism, the mission, through which to keep my head to the sky through the storms.

My quest is …

Doorway into sustaining memories of Joy
Reboot tool
Recoding of my inner happy black app
Reminder of my vernacular genius
Reminder to tell my story walking
Doorway into personal eloquence
My my my in the experience of Happiness
Yes yes yes in the experience of Joyful Insistence
Say what when my Joy is challenged
I wish a Maryland Farmer would lie on my Joy

BONUS EXCERPT from my book, Black Man of Happiness: In Pursuit of My ‘Unalienable Right,’ WINNER, 2015 AMERICAN BOOK AWARD: “…  By respecting the difficulty I’ve faced reaching my own manhood, and owning how lonely it can get on this journey, I feel empowered to offer a loving challenge to Black men: Stride beyond behaviors forged during adolescence. Awake from any form of arrested development. Peep and avoid the pitfalls of peer-pressured choices. Refuse self-pity, even in the wake of fatherlessness and other profound loss. Prioritize a deep personal vision and motivation. Speak on your own experiences as experts who are relentlessly, incrementally, living distinctive lives of positive power.I’ve paid my dues. I’ve earned my expertise. I’ve found my stride. I have chosen to walk a quieter road, and speak with the confidence of a man whose arc does not include brushes with criminality, nor paralyzing self-doubt, but instead rests on a foundation that includes life-long parenting of successful adult children, educating hundreds of young people, from elementary school students to Ph.Ds., and distilling from personal and cultural challenges happiness that is a living echo of the African American tradition of grace under pressure. I have chosen to examine happiness from within African American culture, relying on expertise and wisdom earned from embracing the ebb and flow of living as an urban Black male unshielded by academics or scientists, Shamans or salesmen. I have chosen to cast my counter spell in a vital, personal voice of ecstatic insight that does not promise easy answers, formulas, prescriptions, lectures, pre-packaged advice, or promises whispered in the voice of a meditation teacher or a scolding librarian. Whatever my volume, you do not have to worry if you hear my voice coming up behind you. Turn around. Your joy is safe with me.…” https://blackmanofhappiness.com/shop/

Big Bang of Brotherhood

Genetic Dancers

Me and David, my big brother from another mother (and from the Bronx), were laughing about how we met … our Big Bang of Brotherhood.

He was behind the camera at a Bay Area TV show, as I was interviewed about my magazine, Genetic Dancers: magazine for/about the Artistry Within African/American Fathers, which I published from 1985 to 1988.

After the show, this buff, former U.S. Marine got right in my face. Reached out his hand to shake mine.

We need to talk Brother!

We swapped numbers and I pledged to holler. I did NOT holler. Quiet as it’s kept, I was intimidated by this dude who’d walked point in Vietnam and who intro’d himself with ONLY his last name.

Months passed. I was attending an MLK celebration in front of SF city hall.

I thought you was going call me brother!?

In that huge crowd, ONLY destiny could have bumped us into each other! First thought: Why I gotta meet up with this dude who spoke more like a pissed off power forward shouting, ‘AND ONE,’ than Dr. King intoning I have a dream!

Of course, we got together. Close to 40 years later, we’re the beneficiaries of sincere, emotional and political conversations, creative collaborations, teamwork through various crises and during fierce games of basketball when we could both run all day, meals and meals and meals (both he and his Beloved burn baby burn in the kitchen!).

He even loaned me $$ once during one of my crises, and when I took a bit too long to repay, he called me.

I love you brother. It’s time to repay me.

I think my rent suffered that month, but I repaid this individual — with visions dancing in my head of a horse head in my bed.

David is one of many brothers beyond biology whose kindness and instruction and invigoration pulse with the frequency of life. They are embodied mantras. Virtuoso meditation partners. Voices of mediation and medication.

And I can remember the exact moment when we met, the exact experience that consolidated us into brotherhood buoyed by candor, laughter, honesty, encouragement, and generosity. Ethical He said/He said!

life life

this season  life  life
this need   life   life
this season
this need
this crying season
this laughing need
this peter this man this fool
need this season need this need
need this life need this foolishness

when he cry   human
when he he laugh   human
morning out the pores
night between the hands
30-year-old vinyl echoes circulate his blood
daily stamina of beauty
recreate sound beyond instinct
this moment
poised with paradox in the back pocket of his humanity
years of gratitude dancing in the near sight eyes
need this season need this need
need this life need this foolishness

I wish you clarity about the DNA of your friendships. I’d love to see video interviews with men about the aha moment they chose to be friends and brothers from another mother

— for life.

BONUS EXCERPT from my book, Black Man of Happiness: In Pursuit of My ‘Unalienable Right,’ WINNER, 2015 AMERICAN BOOK AWARD: “… In his essay, “Love and the Enemy,” from his book, Flyboy in the Buttermilk, Greg Tate inspires me, and reminds us all, that “any liberation or empowerment strategy that doesn’t grow out of love, in its most constructive, critical, and compassionate senses, is useless.”  Tate then throws it down: “The warriors we need to step forward now aren’t the confrontational kind, but healers. Folk who know how to reach into where we really hurt, to the wounds we can’t see and that nobody likes to talk about. If Black male leadership doesn’t move in the direction of recognizing the pain and trauma beneath the rage … if we don’t exercise our capacity to love and heal each other by digging deep into our mutual woundedness, then what we’re struggling for is merely the end of white supremacy — and not the salvaging of its victims.” Sidewalk, I’m talking about. The sidewalks of our lives, where we walk on the way to work, to school, where we carry our emotional lunch money, run up on a long-lost partner from high school, reconnect with formative friends from young adulthood, where we just us, living our lives substantially and without sensationalism, one day at a time, as fathers, workers, lovers, inventors, uncles, and play brothers, making pancakes from scratch for our kids, temporarily holding a job we can’t stand, finding contentment in the arms of a round-the-way lover, just doing the damn thing as humane companions for children, women, other men.…” https://blackmanofhappiness.com/shop/

Stick Shift on the Column

How about these ingredients for a memorable, combustible and hilarious Driver’s Ed Moment:

In my late adolescent glory as number 3 son, I sat behind the wheel of Pops’ old blue pickup truck.

Sitting in the shotgun seat, Pops sipped from a half pint of Smirnoff Vodka tucked into a brown paper bag.

Our mission on one spring day in DC’s Chocolate City glory days:

Me learning to drive his beloved truck with the manual transmission, which meant HIM teaching me to smoothly work the clutch while finding the right gear using the stick shift on the steering wheel column.

I had to learn from a dude with the bedside manner of a former bootlegger, the pedagogy of a junior high school dropout, the voice tone of Fred Sanford’s diabetic older brother, and the patience of that New York hustler on Stevie’s Living for the City.

It’s the carburetor!

I swear that’s what Pops always said, whenever one of the lemons I drove conked out. And usually, the lemons were cars he hipped me to, after I moved on from my first car, the 1962 Chevy Impala that he and Moms gave me, as long as I paid for insurance, gas and repairs.

Take that 71 Plymouth Fury I bought for $700 cash. That bomb died as soon as we drove off the parking lot. Ironically, I’d turned down the opportunity to purchase a yellow Honda Civic station wagon, which I’d probably still be driving 22 years into the 21st Century!

On GP, Pops was definitely more skilled with cars than I was. I changed the oil ONCE on my Impala and I could change a flat tire, but that was the extent of my skills as a mechanic. I wish my cousin Peyton had been my automotive consigliere. Peyton was an automotive magician! Every time we visited extended fam in Powhatan, I’d see Peyton smiling – like a happy, playful child – tinkering with engines that were in one state of breakdown or rebuild!

So every time I miss the gear, and my clutch work has the truck bucking like a bronco, Pops sips from his brown bag and cusses me out. His through line: You go to college. Figure it out.

I shout back at his onery ass: How the hell am I supposed to work the stick shift when you only showed me ONE TIME!

Actually, finally, I shout: You are worst driver’s ed teacher I’ve ever had!

But suddenly, angrily, seamlessly – in one explosive moment – I shift the gears in perfect synch with the clutch and press the accelerator. I feel the timing necessary to drive a vehicle with a manual transmission. It was a lasting aha, because for years I only bought cars with stick shifts.

There you go! He raised his brown bag in salute.

You got it.

Too pissed for words, I drove the truck home, shifting gears like a pro the whole way.

Happy 99th birthday Pops! You caught me smiling again.

BONUS EXCERPT from my book, Black Man of Happiness: In Pursuit of My ‘Unalienable Right,’ WINNER, 2015 AMERICAN BOOK AWARD: “… When I was coming of age in the ‘70s, when freedom became part of my vocabulary, part of the vocabulary of my generation, I defined freedom as a refusal, a resistance, to the ‘system.’ No actions that paid money to multinational corporations or paid fealty to customs, which didn’t give a shit about me or my health. No actions that left me vulnerable to the humble, whether it came from an accident, because I was getting high, or from the violence of folks paid off or corrupted by their addictions. I still believe in outward refusal and resistance, and I don’t think I can find happiness by disengaging from living in the world and being of the world. But now I know that I can only claim true happiness, I can only find steady serenity on my pursuit of happiness, when I feel the exquisite sensuality, the inherent intimacy, of my unorchestrated inner briar patch of emotional power and potential and unique beauty that, frankly, has been, at worst, beaten out of us, and, at best, tainted as taboo for Black men.…” https://blackmanofhappiness.com/shop/

Updraft @ 67

Peter J. Harris

Calendar says I’m 67 this month!

Mirror says I’m no longer the fairest of them all!

But like blood surging back into my fingertips, after I’ve slept on my hand, I’m riding an updraft @ 67!

How to describe my genuine energy, curiosity and sense of power?

How to describe my clarity, thunder and sense that I’m part of a heroic refusal to back down to extremists?

How to describe my perpetual state of arousal and desire and sense of excitement?

How to describe my resilience and imagination and sense of inspiration?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m well aware what we face from the sidewalk to the halls of power. I’m not hiding from the odious social inequities forced upon the majority.

I’m subject to downdrafts like any sane person squaring off against the persistent lies and contradictions of our accelerated world. But our resistance ain’t nothing new either:

“The study of happiness never was a luxury to be postponed until more serene, peaceful times,” writes Sissela Bok in her book Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science (2011). “…Yet it is precisely in times of high danger and turmoil that concerns about happiness are voiced most strikingly and seen as most indispensable. From earliest times, views of human happiness have been set forth against the background of suffering, poverty, disease, and the inevitability of death. … [page 5]

No doubt the ‘background’ to my wreaking happiness begins in the era of the American avatar of enlightenment, Thomas Jefferson. Since I remain a card carrying member of the Dozens Institute of Southeast D.C., Richard Pryor Division, I like to juxtapose without intimidation Jefferson’s soaring language in the U.S. Declaration of Independence in 1776 with the coarse and commercial text of his 1769 runaway slave ad in the Virginia Gazette for a “Mulatto slave called Sandy.”

“…Whoever conveys the said slave to me, in Albemarle, shall have 40 s. (shillings) reward, if taken up within the county, 4 l. (pounds) if elswhere within the colony, and 10 l. if in any other colony….” 

So yes, a brother’s birthday can get bittersweet:

Saudade @ 54

indigo rusting joints of a birthday
muscle car revving in neutral   cantankerous as Fred Sanford  

lingering exhale   cleansing cry

Saudade  

sweet and sour origami
vamp of my Ancestors’ invitation

implodes into craving for my exalted adolescence 

Trenton Avenue serenades & harmonies
when my sidewalk skin rhymed with the wind

Yet 13 years later, I’m caught in the rapture of an incorruptible joy onna move. I refuse the notion imposed on me that I only exist to make someone else happy and then die.

My presence on this earth is precious. Period. Full Stop. May I live in such a way that I’m an example of what Moms and them (including Langston Hughes and Sweet Honey in the Rock) called Dream Variations….

And I as dance whirl whirl: may you, too, feel the earth move sweetly underneath your feet – and NOT find it peculiar!

BONUS EXCERPT from my book, Black Man of Happiness: In Pursuit of My ‘Unalienable Right,’ WINNER, 2015 AMERICAN BOOK AWARD: “… But it’s time to forge joy from joy, ignite happiness from happiness, to spiral inward to get to an indivisible irradiation, whose fragrance is exhaled as part of each breath we take. Want to be happy. Will be happy. Become onery about happiness. What happiness can I cultivate when I don’t have to look over my shoulder? What endorphins will I release – in my body and into the body politic – by singing of myself, singing to myself…being myself…again…? What ecstasy? For ourselves and for others we love?  .…” https://blackmanofhappiness.com/shop/

Hand Dancing with My Secret Love

One of the true blessings of my life: when I’ve joyously hand danced with a lover! When we’ve stepped into a current of mutual exhilaration. When we’ve released residual embarrassment about stepping on one another’s toes! When, like chameleons, our colors blended perfectly!

True friends, hip to the movement of our intimacy, hopeful in our intimacy’s movement.

Surrendered. Sundered. Alive and thrilled in each other’s arms. Steps be damned. Choreography welling from the moment. Choreography stitched together and choreography so psyched!

Two bodies shouting without words! Two bodies emanating a concussion wave of joy! Two humans riveted on one another. Two lovers blending their megahertz. Two folks who’ve put down their shields. Two folks who’ve offered up their secret loves. Two people hearing the music within the music.

Two folks, so blended within their momentum, they draw errry body’s attention!

The Promise That Twilight Made

twilight already promises
a night that would be a night
when all the holy statues
could wipe the tears from their eyes

when all the hopeful lovers
could hear a serenade of prayers
just from the watercolor evening breeze

then on the dying spin of one long day
floats an oldie by Billy Stewart
the harmony of a new dimension
reveals the promise that twilight made

just from the breezy watercolor
dripping music from the rippling horizon

(i do love you/yes i do)

& it becomes a night
all the dry-eyed statues
tip from their sanctuaries down
to this seashore & sashay cross the purple seawater
Billy Stewart sings sweetly down by the seashore
clouds step across the sky like back-up singers
full moon glows like a church soloist wearing quilted spirit
Billy Stewart sings sundown by the seashore
lovers nod to his Doo Wop serenade

(i do love you/yes i do)

twilight died on the spindle of one long day
all the holy lovers found a home
in the watery folds of robes worn
by statues swishing on the waves of wishes

on a night that became a night  

when all the world’s dancers
closed their eyes & swooned like newborn
lovers into the twilight water colors
dripping from the rippling places
where water meets tomorrow

My hand dance mantra: Relax the muscle. Strengthen the muscle. Stretch the muscle. Flex the muscle. Keep the muscle supple. Discern your moment for a hand dance. Cultivate opportunities for hand dancing. Clear out schedules and make time for a hand dancing jam.

Then shake your body down to the ground!   

Last conversation I had with my 17- and 15-year-old granddaughters …

They lifted their heads from their smartphones juuuuuussssst long enough to tell me:

At the parties they attend, they dance by jumping in the air. I loved it and told them how in college, at a Graham Central Station concert, that’s how me and 2,500 other fans partied to the music: jumping in synergies with one another.

Larry Graham and us shouting:

Dancing and singing is all I really ever wanted to do….”

BONUS EXCERPT from my book, Black Man of Happiness: In Pursuit of My ‘Unalienable Right,’ WINNER, 2015 AMERICAN BOOK AWARD: “… I’m trying to counsel [my grandson]: Pair rejuvenation with your boldness. Pair creativity with your swagger. Pair stamina with your daring. Hunger as much for a reason to live as you do for making money. Shortsighted? Compare your vision with that of your mother, who imagined becoming a nurse and went back to school as an adult and mastered the work it took. Impulsive? Define victories. Peep consequences. Measure the benefits of every thought, of every decision, of every action. One-dimensional? Multiply by 20 years the trash talking of a dude wondering if he’ll make it past the age of 25 and risk focusing on what it will feel like in your 40’s. Negative peer pressure? Cultivate relatives, play brothers or play sisters, who will refresh you when you feel defeated. What’s your starting foundation? Mine reveres and relies on relentless stamina, dream states, daring in the clutch, music that raises the hair on my neck, and the miracle of improvisation. How do you want folks to feel around you? I want folks to feel like they’ve entered a Field of Joy when I walk into room. What do you celebrate? I celebrate a tradition of keeping my eyes on the prize. How do you successfully sustain your accomplishments? I say thank you in real time, for the smallest success. What are your Inner Resources? Mine are hope, curiosity, courage, personal artistry. What are your Inspiration Specs? Mine are praise and credit where praise and credit are due, lifted spirits, strengthened alliances, mutual improvement, mutual refinement, mutual solutions .…” https://blackmanofhappiness.com/shop/