MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE more from NPR News. In America, we have a tradition of black writers whose autobiographies and memoirs come to define an era. Both for the people living it and for the people who are very far from the harsher side of black life. Think about Claude Brown's "Manchild in the Promised Land." MK Asante's new memoir called "Buck" may be this generation's story. MK Asante is a writer, a hip-hop artist, a filmmaker and a professor. He's won prestigious awards for his poetry. But before all that, he was a teenager trying to navigate the minefields of violence, sex and drugs in North Philadelphia, and he was a son coping with a mother struggling with mental illness and a famous but often absent father. He's not only written about all this, in some ways, he's created a new language to write about this in his new memoir "Buck," and he's with us now. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.
MK ASANTE: Oh, thank you so much for having me.
MARTIN: Sometimes when people write a memoir or an autobiography, they write it because they see their story as so typical of a lot of people's story. Sometimes they write it because it's so over-the-top, outrageous that people think oh, well, I have to write about this, nobody would believe it. Interestingly enough, your story has elements of both, you know.
ASANTE: Exactly. That's what I was thinking.
MARTIN: Would you agree? And I was wondering, when you sat down to write it, why did you write it? Did you say to yourself, this is a lot a people's story, or did you say this is so crazy nobody would believe it?
ASANTE: When I sat down to write my story, first of all, I knew it was time to tell my story, you know. With each project I've ever worked on - and I think other artists will understand - you just get a calling and you know that this is the project that you have to tell. It's really like oozing out of you. You can't even control it. Every time you get a free moment of thought, it's coming out. Every time you're sit down to write, it's coming out. There were times...
MARTIN: But why do you think it was time to write it? Do you think - I mean...
MARTIN: I'm thinking of a number of reasons. Your story comes out soon after the conclusion of the case involving the killing of Trayvon Martin, which has been a searing experience for many people.
MARTIN: And your story is very much about the things that happen to young African-American men. But why do you think it came out now?
ASANTE: Well, on a personal note, you know, there was enough distance for me. Sometimes when you go through things, you need a bit of distance before you can actually tackle it on the page. I felt like I could approach it with a fresh perspective, and actually could deal with it 'cause a lot of it's painful. And kind of revisiting those things, I needed time and space. And in terms of the Trayvon Martin thing, I mean, that was something that was very close to my heart. I was writing as that was kind of unfolding, and the verdict was shortly before the book came out. But the thing that's so timely about that is that there's a Trayvon Martin situation happening almost every day in this country. And I think what "Buck" does is it helps remind people that even though there's cases that we know about, there're so many cases that we don't know about that are happening all the time. And I think - to speak to your point earlier - "Buck" is written because not only is this my story, but this is the story of a lot of people going through these situations in urban America.
MARTIN: I think we need to explain that. You call the book, "Buck," and you say it's dedicated to all the young bucks.
ASANTE: Young buck, buck wild, buck shots, buck town, slave buck, make buck, black buck, buck now. I mean, buck has so many different meanings. I wanted a title that was loaded, that was also short, you know, to the point but loaded in terms of its substance. So on the one hand, you've got young bucks...
MARTIN: People called you that. That was like an...
MARTIN: People called you that and a lot of other young guys that.
MARTIN: People call you that.
ASANTE: In Philly that's what we do. And not only in Philly, all over the country. What's up, young buck? You know, go to the store and get me some - whatever, right? Young buck. So that's a term. But it's also a derogatory term, you know, used for African-American men during slavery. So we're selling this black buck. It's also, obviously, has, you know, references to make a buck. It also has references, you know, to buckshots in the air, is to shoot. That refers to the violence in, where I'm from, Kill-adelphia. You also have this notion of bucking the system. And I think, ultimately, what the book is about, you know, in terms of buck is because I always had a rebellious spirit my whole life. And I think one of the epiphanies that I come through in the book is to realize that being a rebel or being a true buck isn't about doing the things that, you know, results in you ending up in jail, but being a true buck is bucking against the status, quote, bucking against the statistics, the norm, you know, some of the traps we see kind of placed around urban areas, so.
MARTIN: This is the point at which I think we really need to give people some details, so that they'll understand what part and what we're talking about. So you're born in Zimbabwe. You came to this country as a child. Your mother's a dancer.
MARTIN: Your father is a very well known professor of African studies. And he's still teaching, right, in Philadelphia, and you grew up in North Philadelphia. But then, you know, your brother, your older brother, how can we describe kind of what happened? He started becoming - go ahead. You tell it.
ASANTE: Yeah, exactly. I mean, the opening lines of the book, the falling Kill-adelphia. Outside is the color of corn bread and blood. Change hangs in the air like the sneaks on the live wires behind my crib. Me and my big brother Uzi in the kitchen. He's rolling a blunt on top of The Source, the one with Tyson on the cover, rocking a kufi, ice grilling through the gloss. Uzi can roll a blunt with his eyes closed. Now Uzi is my brother. Uzi is the color of walnuts and has a long sharp face like the African masks my dad hangs up everywhere. His name is Daahoud, my parents call him Daudi, and the hood calls him Uzi. He's got a bunch of other names, too, like some superhero - Oohwop, Daa-Ooh, Uzito, Wop da Culture, Cool D, Pinch P, Big Ooh, Barkalark, Droptimus Rhyme, Big Fly and Stilt the Kilt.
And so my brother is this figure who's larger-than-life. He's my idol. I look up to him. And I say - you know, I follow him everywhere. I'm like his little black JanSport strapped tight to his back, koala style. Everywhere he goes, I go. He tries it, I try it, right. I even duck like him under doorways, even though he's way taller and I don't even need to duck, right. So this is my big brother, and he's locked up early on in the book.
The police raid our house, about 25 cops, and they brutalize him. They take him to jail. And this is the beginning of the end, really. And not just for my brother in the legal situation, but also just for my family in a lot of ways, you know, my brother's incarceration. He gets sent to Arizona where he gets incarcerated again, this time seriously. And my mother who's from Brooklyn, you know, she breaks down with mental health issues. She tries to commit suicide several times. She's institutionalized. My dad, who's from rural Valdosta, Georgia, grew up one of 16 children. You know, him and my mom go through it - he ends up leaving. And so a lot of my adolescent years, especially the years described in "Buck," are me unsupervised with my brother gone, my dad gone, my mom gone, and me just on the block in the neighborhood roaming the streets of Philly - just lost.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking with MK Asante - writer, hip-hop artist, filmmaker, professor. He's the author of a new memoir about growing up in Philadelphia. It's called "Buck." And to that end, the book talks about a lot of things. It's such a cliche - the allure of the streets. You know, you hear that phrase, like, a million times a day - the allure of the streets. But one of the things that you do in the book is you talk about, like, the comradery and the friendship...
MARTIN: ...And the mutual support, the love even...
MARTIN: ...That a lot of times young men find. You talk about schools that really don't seem very interested in educating you. But your parents, I don't think any reasonable reader of the book could look at that and say that these were effective parents who really were doing their best by you. And so of those three things, I have to ask you, what do you think is the most predominant in your story?
ASANTE: Well, I think first of all, the story is about education. It's about miseducation, reeducation, self-education, street education. It's about the difference and the distance between school and education. Mark Twain said, don't let school get in the way of your education. I learned this firsthand. You know, and I think that it's also about the redemption of family. Without struggle, there's no progress. We know Frederick Douglass said that. And although we go through struggles and my family, it's ultimately a story about a family reuniting, in so many ways. And so me and my dad's situation, my mom getting healthier dancing again. And it's also about the power of art to do all these things because this story is about me finding my voice as a writer.
MARTIN: Do me a favor...
MARTIN: ...If you would, and read me a little bit from that section where you...
ASANTE: OK. So I've been kicked out of every..
ASANTE: ...School. I've been arrested. You know, life is crazy. I end up at this alternative school where a blank page is put in front of me. And I ask the teacher, well, what do you want me to write? And she says, write anything you want. And I've never heard those words before in school. You know, school was about rote memorization and regurgitation, always. So the first thing I wrote was a curse word. She said, OK, keep going now.
ASANTE: She challenged me, and now I had to really write something. And so this is a scene from that chapter. I turn the page over, it's blank again. The blank page is the starter pistol that fires and triggers my mind to sprint. What will I write? What will I say? Will I say what I write, write what I say? Something funny? Something serious? How about something about my family? Something about Amir? How will I start? Whose story will I tell? My story? Something made up? What about a story about a boy from Philly - a lost boy who finds himself but doesn't know where to look, who wants to tell his story but doesn't know where to begin or end, who searches anyway and discovers something about himself, about the world. I stare at the blank page, an ocean of white alive with possibility. I hear myself take a breath then exhale, deep, like I just rose from underwater.
It's like I'm at the free-throw line again, foul shots, like the game is on the line, again. I remember something my dad told me, shoot to make it. My hands shaking, trembling like it's freezing. Then it hits, a silence louder than all of the music I've heard in my life. All the light in the world in one beam before me. I stare deep into the blank page and see myself. I feel something I've never felt before, purpose. I don't know what my exact purpose is yet, but I know it has something to do with this pen and this blank page. I am a blank page. Holding the pen this way, snug and firm in my fists, makes me feel like I can write my future, spell out my destiny in sharp strokes.
MARTIN: I was saying, at the beginning of our conversation, that in some ways, you not only found your voice, you found a very distinct voice. I mean, I think anybody picking this up will recognize that it's a book, it's a memoir, it's linear...
MARTIN: ...But it has its own language. It kind of feels like a song, in a way, or like a piece of music.
MARTIN: Does that sound right to you?
MARTIN: Was that what you were aiming for, or is that just how you heard it in your head?
ASANTE: I think all of those things in a way. You know, I love music. And for me as an artist, I want readers to experience the rhythm and the pace of my journey and my story because there is a soundtrack to my story. And I think that even without listening to music, you can hear music when you read this story, not just in the lyrics that might be quoted, but in the way that it's written and the way that the prose is written. You know, some of the first writers that I first talk about discovering were the Beat Generation writers. And they were very influenced by jazz music and bebop music. So Jack Kerouac and Ginsberg and these guys, listening to, you know, Thelonious Monk and listening to Bird, and then using that same kind of improvisational style in their writing - writing spontaneous prose. I feel very much connected to hip-hop in that way. And so, you know, I was influenced by all the music that I've ever heard, even the musicality of Broad Street in North Philadelphia and just where I'm from, and the rhythm of that place, you know. I feel like that finds its way into the prose.
MARTIN: Who do you want to read this and what do you want them to draw from this because you can see what different people reading this would come to completely different conclusions about this. I mean, on the one hand, we can say this is a story about the power of education and words. I mean, you did sort of find the right school, eventually, where people figured out how to connect with you and help you get where you needed to get. And your parents, for all their flaws, helped you get there. I mean, your mom found this school for you...
MARTIN: ...And got you in there. On the other hand, other people might look at this and think, this is ridiculous. This is exactly the kind of failure of family that underlies so many of the problems that we have. I mean, there were points at which your parents, essentially, left you to raise yourself. What do you want us to think about this?
ASANTE: Yeah. I mean, I think that...
MARTIN: You know.
ASANTE: ...You know, every family goes through its own struggles. One thing about my mom, her diary entries are interspersed throughout this book and they're very personal, they're very deep. And, you know, we had a conversation about them, like, mom, you know, millions of people - hopefully - are going to read this. Are you good with this? And she's like, you know, yes because through my story and through my struggle, I know I will inspire other people. I know they will use my strength as fuel, and it will help them go through what they're going through. And as African-Americans, she felt that it was important to be open about mental health issues because usually it is a kind of a taboo thing to talk about. And so there's so many things that I want people to take from this book. You know, it's not about what we go through. It's about how we respond to what we go through, right. It's not about falling - we all fall - but how do you get up? How do you rise right after that? And so this book isn't necessarily about the fall, even though it begins with the fall. It's about the rise. It's about the response. It's about what we do after we fall, after we stumble.
MARTIN: Let me ask you, though, about your father because this is one of the things that your mother talks about in one of her journal entries. I mean, she talks about the fact that your father who, as I mentioned is a very well-known professor of African studies, talks a lot about the black family, Afrocentric, and talks a lot about the importance of the black family. She says that he did not live up to his own obligations to his own family, that he essentially abandoned you and her at a time of need when she was mentally ill and broken. Now he comes around in the end and tells you how much he loves you, but there are a lot of people who will look at that and say, that is exactly the problem here, that people can blame whatever they want to blame on larger social forces. But at the end of the day, if the men of the household don't do their job, then all is lost, you know.
MARTIN: What about that?
ASANTE: To me, if the story would've ended there, yeah, that would - you would be right. That would be what's wrong, right. But the story didn't end there. My dad does come back around. There's a lot of ways that could've went, but I don't feel as if that's the problem. I feel like, actually, we're an example of how a family can overcome great obstacle, and we've done that at every turn.
MARTIN: What response are you getting to the book?
ASANTE: Oh, my God. It's been amazing. I mean, people from all over the country, all over the world, have been writing me letters every day. They've been writing my mom letters, you know, thanking her. They want to know if she's coming out with a book of her 'cause they love her writing. You know, you ask me who I wrote the book for.
ASANTE: The best compliment I ever received was, I was at a juvenile detention center and the guy who ran the prison, he told me that he gives my books to kids who hate reading, right. And so I feel like, in a lot of ways, this book is written for the kid that has never read anything that's resonated with him. That's never read anything, that saw him or her. And when I say saw, I'm talking about where they were acknowledged, right, their story, their experience, their language was acknowledged, right. And so I feel like it's for that. But it's also for everyone else. I mean, there's so many universal themes in terms of this book about finding your purpose, about literature, about art, about family, about overcoming obstacles, about - you know, you talk about the allure of the streets and that life, but there's so much to learn there. You know, one of the things I learned is that the whole world is a university. At every stop there are professors and teachers. They don't announce themselves, and they might not be wearing a bowtie, but the barbershop on the corner or whatever, there's these people who you interact with who can teach you so much and have knowledge and gems to give you.
I remember this homeless man in Philadelphia. He told me, he said, you know what soul is, young man? I said, soul train? He said, no. He says, soul is the graceful survival against impossible circumstances. That's what soul is. That stuck with me to this day. You know, I mean, I also believe that if you make an observation, you have an obligation. And so one of my observations was that young people and the generation of today needed a story that was real because young people today can see through BS real quick. You know what I'm saying? We're very equipped and adapt at that. So, you know, they needed a story that was real - that was going resonate them, but was also going to take them somewhere beyond where they were to a place they had not yet considered. And I think that's what "Buck" does.
MARTIN: MK Asante is a writer and filmmaker. He's a professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore. His latest work is a memoir titled "Buck." He was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. MK Asante, Professor, thank you so much for speaking with us.
ASANTE: Thank you so much for having me. Peace.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
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