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Poet James Cagney on Closure, Reckoning’s Limits, and What’s Next

Oakland poet James Cagney was 19 when he asked his mother “Are you really my mother?” Her answer changed his life forever. He learned he was adopted, that his birth parents, who already had seven children, couldn’t afford to raise him. 

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James Cagney/Photo Courtesy of Zack Haber

Oakland poet James Cagney was 19 when he asked his mother “Are you really my mother?” Her answer changed his life forever. He learned he was adopted, that his birth parents, who already had seven children, couldn’t afford to raise him. 

As a baby, Cagney had been given to an older couple who raised him. His adoptive mother had been his birth mother’s teacher in cosmetology school. The women knew each other well, but Cagney never knew his birth family as a child.

Cagney grew up as an only child in North Oakland and forged a close, loving relationship with his mother. But things were different with the man who raised him. While Cagney has emphasized that his father wasn’t abusive, his parenting was passive and detached. In his poem “Someone Else’s Child,” Cagney asks “Did you ever hold me as a baby?” to which his father answers “Naw. ‘fraid I’d drop you. ‘sides. You were someone/else’s child.”

After learning about his adoption, Cagney’s life would become even more turbulent in about the next dozen years. During that time, the parents who raised him died. Then there was the literal earth shaking, the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, contributed to him losing the home he grew up in, and he became homeless.

He bounced around as a guest in friend’s homes, lived in an SRO, and most notably, lived with his birth mother in Sacramento for about two years. He forged complex, difficult, but ultimately rewarding and loving relationships with much of his birth family, but he never got to meet his birth father, who died before Cagney even knew he existed.

He began penning deeply autobiographical poetry about his familial experiences. It would take him about 20 years to write and collect this poetry into his first book, “Black Steel Magnolias in the Hour of Chaos Theory.” He was 50 when the Oakland-based Nomadic Press published it in 2018.

Since then, he’s become a celebrated and widely read poet. “Black Steel Magnolias in the Hour of Chaos Theory” sold out of its first print run and Nomadic Press just reissued it in a second printing with a new foreward and introduction. His next book, “Martian: The Saint of Loneliness,” just won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets. Nomadic Press will publish it fall of 2022.

I talked with Cagney, now 53 and living in East Oakland, about his experience writing and publishing “Black Steel Magnolias in the Hour of Chaos Theory.” We also talked a little bit about “Martian: The Saint of Loneliness,” which, in taking a turn away from autobiography, expands his poetics. I edited our conversation for readability and brevity.

Zack: It’s been over three years since “Black Steel Magnolias in the Hour of Chaos Theory” was published. How has the book’s publication and its reception affected your process of dealing with the difficult experiences the book addresses?

Cagney: More than anything it allowed me closure. Up until the time I decided to publish all that material, I was feeling that my story was so personal it didn’t feel like it was necessary or a goal to share it. I didn’t think a lot of other people would have empathy for my sort of weird, broken family thing. I didn’t feel like my story had enough drama to attract a lot of attention. My family was not nasty. I mention alcoholism in the book but it’s not like my father was a maniac. I was very fortunate and blessed. So, the book was mostly just me trying to sort out my own identity in the wake of all that confusing craziness.

I decided to publish the book just to provide what I would have liked to have seen in the world when I was younger. I wanted to communicate to people who have had similar weird family experiences. I also wanted to acknowledge the love and respect a lot of people in the poetry community have paid me over the years. Many people have been very respectful and responsive to the poems that I’ve done. And especially with the proximity and the newness of Nomadic Press, I decided to go forward, publish all that stuff, and just get it out of my head.

The most important part was claiming space for myself in poetry by validating my own life through these pieces that represented who I was and where I came from. I gambled on the love other people had shared with me by sending it out into the world to see what would happen.

But to be honest, Zack, nothing has shifted (laughter) because especially with the pandemic and being under house arrest for a year, the alienation has never gone away. When I think of the disconnection that made the poems exist, I guess I could confess to you that feeling persists. I’ve just gotten used to the weight and tension of it. It’s sort of like walking a dog that wants to pull you as opposed to walk with you is what my issues feel like sometimes. I still feel like I’m wrestling and settling with that.

I wish I could tell you something has changed, or a new sun has risen over a different land. But the way I felt writing those poems, I unfortunately still feel that way. I just feel a little bit better about it. I feel I’ve matured with it. I feel I’ve accepted more of it instead of fighting and whining against the way things just happen to be. I also feel really grateful for the response the book has gotten. I feel good closing a particular chapter of my life. I guess that book represents the first third of my life: my childhood and early adulthood. What that book does is validate I was here, and I survived. And maybe that’s enough.

Zack: To me, Black Steel Magnolias in the Hour of Chaos Theory reads like poetic autobiography in the present tense by continually addressing the past as it relates to the now. But since the book took about 20 years to write, you and that now shift dramatically in different poems. What does 20 years do? How did that duration affect how the book took shape?

Cagney: It’s interesting for me to take a look at the book as a whole and see the poems that were started in the mid-’90s and poems that I wrote in the year before it got published, to see that conversation and growth. I guess those are like two different Jameses. The earlier James was still trying to figure things out and was maybe overwriting and working too hard to create poetic images and stuff like that. When I was in high school, I studied journalism and almost took that up as a career. What that platform gave me, in those early years, was a sense of trying to interrogate the truth as I had been taught to find it through journalism to then create a structure and framework for that truth that I was gradually learning from open mics and reading books. The more current James has been introduced to experimentation and gotten the point of compression. I push the story into a smaller space and am able to be more experimental by making strange, unusual decisions; and I don’t feel I have to be so strict with the truth.

The book represents a serious, huge growth period for me as much as it does negotiating of family. I can see the old and new James in conversation and trying to balance themselves. It’s finding a balance between my older mindse,t which is more much raw in trying to figure myself out and what poetry is and can do, and now me, many years later, having gone through this process of family and identity and poetry and applying much stricter edits and purpose in the kind of poems I’m trying to create.

Often “Black Steel Magnolias in the Hour of Chaos Theory” feels palpably unresolved to me, like the pain of holding one’s breath. I like that because it helps me relate to what’s happening in the book, which often seems to be about not being able to find peace or finding incomplete peace. It makes me curious about your forthcoming book, “Martian: The Saint of Loneliness.” Is that book a continuation of the themes of its predecessor? How is it different from its predecessor? What would you like to share with readers about it?

I told my editor, Michaela Mullin, who worked on both books, that “Black Steel Magnolias in the Hour of Chaos Theory” is who I am, and “Martian: The Saint of Loneliness” represents what I do as a poet. There are themes in “Martian” that absolutely converse with what happens in the first book, but this collection is very different. I guess I just wanted to get all my biographical stuff out of the way in “Black Steel Magnolias”In “Martian,” I address a lot of race issues, the history of America, Black Lives Matter, as well as love poems and meditations on my feelings of isolation nonetheless.

Part of the image I’m looking at for “Martian” is that there’s a lot of families who have lost people to gun violence and racial violence. We often call the names and talk about those who are lost. One thing the book does, in an indirect way, is it pays attention to the people who are still here and have to hold that loss. What questions would you have for Trayvon Martin’s best friend? What is the story of the feelings people have about the disappearance that their friend or brother or sister leaves after being murdered by police or dying through COVID?

I’m familiar with grief from the last book. Maybe this next book tries to look into the hole that grief has left and ask: what do we do now with this space, this darkness, with what’s left by this person’s invisibility? What happens now?

 

The Oakland Post’s coverage of local news in Alameda County is supported by the Ethnic Media Sustainability Initiative, a program created by California Black Media and Ethnic Media Services to support community newspapers across California.

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Black History

George Robert Carruthers: Revealing the Mysteries of Space

During a 1992 oral history interview with the American Institute of Physics, George Robert Carruthers (1939–2020) shared: “When I was about 8 or 9 years old, I got a Buck Rogers comic book from my grandmother, and that was, of course, long before there was any such thing as a space program. Since it was science fiction, nobody took space flight seriously in those days, back in the late ’40s, early ’50s.”

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The Cincinnati-born George Carruthers (center) constructed his first telescope using cardboard tubing and mail-order lenses he bought with money he earned as a delivery boy.
The Cincinnati-born George Carruthers (center) constructed his first telescope using cardboard tubing and mail-order lenses he bought with money he earned as a delivery boy.

By Tamara Shiloh

At a time when only a few Black high school students were entering projects in Chicago science fairs, George Robert Carruthers (1939–2020) presented the telescope he’d designed and built. He won three awards, including first prize.

He later graduated (1957) from Chicago’s Englewood High School and earned his Ph.D. in aeronautical and astronautical engineering at the University of Illinois (1964). But his deep interest in space started much earlier.

The Cincinnati-born Carruthers constructed his first telescope using cardboard tubing and mail-order lenses he bought with money he earned as a delivery boy. He was 10 at the time and found everything about space fascinating. Although the first human journey around Earth did not take place until 1961, George’s dream was to become a part of the “unknown” being explored.

During a 1992 oral history interview with the American Institute of Physics, Carruthers shared: “When I was about 8 or 9 years old, I got a Buck Rogers comic book from my grandmother, and that was, of course, long before there was any such thing as a space program. Since it was science fiction, nobody took space flight seriously in those days, back in the late ’40s, early ’50s.”

What was then considered an interest in so-called science fiction would lead Carruthers to a successful career as an astrophysicist and engineer and his 1970 telescopic design that had been sent into space on an unmanned rocket from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, proving the existence of molecular hydrogen between stars and galaxies.

He also created an advanced telescopic device used during the 1972 Apollo 16 mission to produce ultraviolet photographs of Earth’s outermost atmosphere, stars, nebulae, and galaxies. This discovery enabled scientists to examine Earth’s atmosphere for concentrations of pollutants. For his work on the project, Carruthers was awarded NASA’s Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal.

Throughout his career, Carruthers would design several telescopes that flew aboard NASA spacecraft. In the 1980s, one of his inventions captured an ultraviolet image of Halley’s Comet. In 1991, he invented a camera used in the Space Shuttle Mission.

A supporter of education, Carruthers was instrumental in creating the Science & Engineers Apprentice Program that offered high school students an opportunity to work at the Naval Research Laboratory. In 1996 and 1997, he taught a course in Earth and Space Science for Wash., D.C., Public Schools science teachers. In 2002, he taught an Earth and Space Science course at Howard University.

In 2003, Carruthers was inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame for his work in science and engineering.

Charles F. Bolden Jr., a NASA administrator, said about Carruthers: “He has helped us look at our universe in a new way by his scientific work and has helped us as a nation see ourselves anew as well.”

Carruthers, described as “a slight, reserved man who often rode his bicycle to work,” died in 2020. He was 81.

Learn more about Carruthers and other Black inventors in Susan K. Henderson’s “African-American Inventors II.”

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Activism

Misty Copeland’s New Memoir “The Wind at My Back” Pays Homage to Another Black Ballerina

Misty Copeland, somewhat of a pathfinder herself, weaves the story of her career in with Raven Wilkinson’s, whose work had been hidden in plain sight for decades. In telling Wilkinson’s story, loudly and publicly, Copeland also writes of the friendship the two women had, and how Wilkinson pushed Copeland to soar to greater heights, career-wise and in Copeland’s personal life. This gives the book an intimate feel, sometimes uncomfortably so, but the sense of gratitude and absolute love for a woman who didn’t hear the word “no” when society repeated it overpowers any squirm you might feel.

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Cover of “The Wind at My Back” pictures Raven Wilkinson, left, and Misty Copeland, right.
Cover of “The Wind at My Back” pictures Raven Wilkinson, left, and Misty Copeland, right.

You don’t belong here.

It’s a declaration that seems confusing, at first. Who says? Who’s in charge here? You don’t belong because…why? The answer is almost always as rude and hurtful as the statement itself, almost as unthinkable now as it was 70 years ago. But in “The Wind at My Back: Resilience, Grace, and Other Gifts from My Mentor, Raven Wilkinson” by Misty Copeland with Susan Fales-Hill, those are four words that strengthen resolve.

Copeland’s first memoir, “Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina,” was published in 2014, before her unprecedented 2015 promotion making her the first African American Principal Female Dancer in the American Ballet Theater’s 75-year history.

Her career at ABT started in the ballet corps in 2001, later becoming a soloist in 2007 when she was quite often the only Black dancer on the stage. She got used to it, but never got comfortable with it. Racism is common in dance and most Black dancers in American history were encouraged to stick with “modern” performances.

That wasn’t the kind of dance Copeland had always dreamed of.

Still, she persevered. Just being with the ABT kept her in place for what the future might bring and besides, she felt like she was representing. Her presence there was encouraging to Black girls who were told they’d never be ballerinas.

And then Copeland met Raven Wilkinson, one of several women of color who paved the way in dance.

Wilkinson (1935-2018) was born to educated, upper-crust Black parents and had set her sights on ballet when she was 5 years old, having experienced the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. She cried then at the emotion in the ballet, and she knew that she wanted to dance. Her parents enrolled her in the School of American Ballet and later, she was trained by Madame Swoboda, one of the Bolshoi Theatre’s premiere ballerinas.

On the cusp of realizing her dream, however, Wilkinson was told that it was “never going to happen” because she was “colored.”

And yet, she, too, persevered and she began touring with a professional troupe which took her to the American South where she fought for her dignity, and she endured threats on her life. Still, she danced, a pioneer, a professional, and a “first.” And when she met Copeland, she became a supportive, loving, wise, thoughtful, powerful mentor.

While it sure looks like a book and it feels like a book, “The Wind at My Back” isn’t really a book. No, it’s a love letter to an elder trailblazer with grace, both inside and out.

Copeland, somewhat of a pathfinder herself, weaves the story of her career in with Wilkinson’s, whose work had been hidden in plain sight for decades. In telling Wilkinson’s story, loudly and publicly, Copeland also writes of the friendship the two women had, and how Wilkinson pushed Copeland to soar to greater heights, career-wise and in Copeland’s personal life. This gives the book an intimate feel, sometimes uncomfortably so, but the sense of gratitude and absolute love for a woman who didn’t hear the word “no” when society repeated it overpowers any squirm you might feel.

A working knowledge of ballet will enhance your enjoyment of this book, but it’s not an absolute necessity. If you (or your teen!) merely love a good double-biography, “The Wind at My Back” belongs on your bookshelf.

“The Wind at My Back” by Misty Copeland with Susan Fales-Hill, c.2022, Grand Central Publishing, $29.00, 240 pages

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Advice

Michelle Obama’s New Book Gives Advice on Managing Difficult Times

Author Michelle Obama is a true storyteller, and she uses a “show, not tell” method of writing. Readers are lulled into an entertaining story of life in the White House, or a gossipy snip of Obama’s married life, or a shared memory from her childhood and BAM! the words seamlessly roll over to an easy, do-able tip to survive in hard times. Nice surprise.

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Life and children's games are alike in this way: as in the new book “The Light We Carry” by Michelle Obama, the only way to win is to keep playing.
Life and children's games are alike in this way: as in the new book “The Light We Carry” by Michelle Obama, the only way to win is to keep playing.

By Terri Schlichenmeyer | The Bookworm Sez

Your entire life is like a gigantic game of “Chutes and Ladders.”

Shake the dice, move two steps ahead, and you hit a ladder that takes you to higher places on the game board. Three more squares, and you hit a chute that sends you back to the bottom.

Life and children’s games are alike in this way: as in the new book “The Light We Carry” by Michelle Obama, the only way to win is to keep playing.

Pandemic, recession, political divide, market volatility. For many months, you’ve wondered every morning what fresh chaos you’ll deal with that day. So, what keeps you going? How do we overcome feelings of being “wobbly and unsettled?”

Michelle Obama says she ponders this “a lot.” She thinks about the things she uses to keep her “balanced and confident…moving forward even during times of high anxiety and stress.” She calls them her “personal toolbox” and she shares them in this book.

Most recently, she says, the pandemic taught her the value of having a hobby to relax into, to let her hands work, “my mind trailing behind.” Her early life taught her the value of seeing the difference between real fear and fear of newness and change, the latter of which is surprisingly easy to overcome. Newness offers us “chances to grow.”

“I’ve come to understand,” she says, “that sometimes the big stuff becomes easier to handle when you deliberately put something small alongside it.”

Listen to your body, Obama says, and “pay attention to how you’re feeling.” Collect small boosts and learn to look at yourself in a more positive way. Love your differences and be kind to yourself because it’s “everything.” Be open to connections with others; cultivate friendships you can count on. “Know your own light,” Obama says, and “Share it with another person.”

Be authentic.

And finally, she says, “Tell the truth, do your best by others, keep perspective, stay tough. That’s basically been our recipe for getting by.”

Chances are that at some point in the past nearly three years, you got out of bed one morning and you weren’t even sure why. It’s been a long haul and you’re tired but “The Light We Carry” can get you to the next goal, then the next.

At first glance, it doesn’t look like that kind of a book, though.

Author Michelle Obama is a true storyteller, and she uses a “show, not tell” method of writing. Readers are lulled into an entertaining story of life in the White House, or a gossipy snip of Obama’s married life, or a shared memory from her childhood and BAM! the words seamlessly roll over to an easy, do-able tip to survive in hard times. Nice surprise.

Readers will be further glad to know that this isn’t a cheerleading book. Instead of U-Rah-Rah, it’s U Can Do This, told in a calm, knowing manner. And if that’s what you need in this time of turmoil, let “The Light We Carry” help you back onto the ladder.

“The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times” by Michelle Obama

c.2022, Crown, $32.50, 319 pages.

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