This Love Saves Lives: Community and Callaloo at Oxford University
On November 22, 2016, two weeks after Election Day, I returned to Oxford, England, for the first time in two decades since my year as a post-grad student. New York City felt like both safety and danger and I wanted a few days outside of everything Donald Trump, even if the escape was to one of the greatest sites of Western European truth-making, an operation that for centuries kept my kind at the bottom of every pyramid-even if we were the ones building them. There is always a
... a behind-fortress-walls feeling when I visit Oxford. A literal one, of course, for so many colleges are small castles, but also the felt sense of having scaled walls created specifically to keep us out. My traveling friend Holly, a 5'2" woman of Italian extraction, kept finding her space invaded by boisterous groups of young English men in sweaters and tweed. This is their natural habitat, I told her, as if that were an excuse for not seeing her on the sidewalk, or for swamping her space at a café. Though I was struck that the only things that still looked the same to me after twenty years were the yellowstone colleges, and the looks of the landed gentry youth. Yet inside our host castle, I found respite. Pembroke College hosted our assembly of Black writers, poets, and scholars gathered to celebrate Callaloo, the journal of African diaspora arts and letters. We suffered shellshock from the election results but we had each other, and created fellowship through panels, readings, dinners, and drinks. No matter the history of Oxford and its Black intellectuals, no matter the chilliness inside the conference auditorium that pushed some to use coats as blankets, the gathering itself warmed me, reminded me, as Prof. Robert Reid-Pharr said, that we've been in bad political straits before, that this is the time for writers to live with our fear and still speak out. But the fear is no joke. Poet Vievee Francis articulated a primal fear during the Creative Writing Workshop panel. Francis, who has co-led the annual Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop with Pulitizer Prize winner Greg Pardlo for several years now, outlined the conventions that distinguished their poetry workshops. At one point she said the teachers would not "discourage individuals if they chose to write about roses on the trellis," that "the individual is not a threat to the collective." Threat. Yes. God. Francis wasn't talking about the outside world, per se, but when aren't we Black people resisting these constant efforts to categorize our beings as dangerous? There is that question for Black people, always. And the intensity of our pushback since Trayvon Martin's murder-in the streets, in our arts, ending missives with those three simple words #BlackLivesMatter, three words that threaten those who feel they have something to lose when our full humanity is acknowledged.