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Home » You are the exclusive author of your story: Jovan Mays at TEDxMileHigh (Transcript)

You are the exclusive author of your story: Jovan Mays at TEDxMileHigh (Transcript)


As a poet in the schools, I see just under 200,000 kids every school year. I start out each session by asking the same question: “How many of you would consider yourselves to be a poet?” At the second grade level, you’ll see every hand shoot to the sky like they’re trying to grab a cloud and squeeze it dry, but by the time that I get to a room filled with juniors in high school, I’d be lucky if I saw five hands.

And I ask you today, how many of you would consider yourselves to be a poet? My point exactly. You see, I have to investigate this, because what else is a poet but a dreamer with a pencil, a strapped scribe stretching stories, the voice of the voiceless, an iniquity avenger accounting accuracy, but most of all: the exclusive author of their own story, controlling order with imagination, again and again. I was taught this by my grandmother, Marilee Roberts Mays. See, it’s third grade, family genealogy project, Southeastern Aurora. I am one black kid in a sea of white kids.

We are learning about who our grandparents’ grandparents are. I’m sitting next to my best friend, Kate Deputy. She is my best friend because we share the same birthday: Earth Day. I can recall days going out on recess and looking at the great lawn and going like this and then staring at each other and saying, “Look what we grew.” Yeah, we were weird kids, and we loved projects like this. And Kate flips the page and discovers that in her Dutch ancestry she has royalty, and I looked over at her and said, “Kate, you know what that means, right?” She said, “What?” I said, “You’re a princess, like a real live princess!” I told the whole class, “Kate’s a princess, Kate’s a princess!” and we laughed, you know? We laughed like kids laugh at that point in time. Meanwhile, my teacher, Miss Chambers, the lady who taught me poetry and how to country two-step, is sitting in the corner of the room looking like she is auditioning for a first date.

She’s nervous. She walks over to me, very slow and sulky, like she’s late for school for the last time without her hall pass. She pulls me aside and says, “Jovan, I’m not sure how to tell you this, but due to poorly kept records during slavery, we can’t find your history.” I said, “Miss Chambers” She said, “What Jovan?” I said, “What’s slavery?” She said, “Well, it’s this period in time when people with skin color like yours had to do things against their will.” I said, “Ms Chambers” She said, “What Jovan?” I said, “What’s will?” She couldn’t answer my question.

For the next 40 minutes, I sat in the back of class while the rest of my classmates found their “Eureka!” moments in their history. I didn’t know whether to scream or to cry. This might be the first time I realized I was black, and that black meant different. I stormed home from school that day, an angry little boy, to my house. My father, who’s a large blue-collar man, is sitting at the kitchen table. I strip off my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle backpack, I throw it at him as hard as I can; I said, “Dad, why didn’t you tell me?” He said, “Tell you what?” “Why didn’t you tell me that we don’t have any history?” He said, “Come on Jovan, you know I grew up in a house where the first black person owned a mortgage in New York City.” I said, “Nuh uh, we’re slaves Dad, which means that we did things against our will. I don’t know what will is, but it’s not good.”

My dad couldn’t answer me, so I stormed up the stairs and went to my room, and did what I got so accustomed to doing at that age: I tucked myself into my toy box, I grabbed the phone, and I called Queens, New York City, to speak to my grandma. I said, “Nana, why didn’t you tell me?” She said, “First of all, you can’t be throwing your backpack at your father like that!” I said, “I know grandma.”

“But today was a hard day.” She said, “I know, and we probably should’ve told you. But I have a question for you, Jovan.” And I’ll never forget this question; my grandmother asked me, “Jovan, what’s your favorite dinosaur?” And in the back of my head, I’m thinking, “Grandma, what the hell does this have to do with anything?”

She says, “Seriously, answer the question!”

I’m like, “Grandma, it’s not funny; serious stuff happened at school.”

“Answer the question!”

I said, “Okay,” every bit of, you know, third grade, Jurassic Park, black boy was like, “I love the velociraptor.”

And she said, “Jovan, who’s to say that you’re not part velociraptor then?”

I said, “This doesn’t make sense; I’m a boy, that’s a dinosaur. I don’t know where you’re going; it doesn’t make any sense.”

She said, “Come on, Jovan, work with me. What’s your favorite kind of ice cream?”

I said, “Vanilla ice cream with cherries in it.”

She said, “Who’s to say you’re not vanilla ice cream with cherries in it?”

I said, “Um, but I’m a boy. That’s ice cream.”

She said, “Come on, Jovan, work with me. What is your favorite part of nature? Do you love the oceans? Do you love the rivers?”

I said, “Grandma, I love the mountains.”

And she said, “Then who’s to say that you’re not a mountain then?”

And every bit of black boy buoyancy came storming back into my chest. And that day, I learned a process that I still continue to this day. I grabbed my pencil; I grabbed a sheet of paper; I went to my desk as the exclusive author, and I began constructing a re-telling of this story using my imagination to keep order. The very next day at school, we had our presentations.

Kate Deputy stepped up and talked about the Dutch royalty in her family. Michael McDaniel stepped up and talked about the blacksmiths in his background. And I stepped up and said, “Hi, I’m Jovan. My grandmother is the bravest woman that I know. My father grew up in a house in New York City where the first black person owned a mortgage, and believe it or not, I’m part velociraptor. I’m — I’m part vanilla ice cream with cherries in it, and I’m a mountain, which means that most of you gaze at me while I pierce the clouds.” I think about the kids who don’t get this moment.

I think about how many of us have to swallow a history that we don’t adjust to the way that we want to. I’m so thankful for my grandmother and the lessons that she dawned upon me. The very next year, this woman, my grandmother, didn’t wake up out of her sleep in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and I was forced to have to grapple again. So I did what I got so adjusted to do. I needed to grab my pencil, grab this piece of paper, go to my desk, and go to war as the exclusive author, using my imagination to create order.

This poem is the dedication to my grandmother. It’s called, “Nana’s Cages.” My grandma: She wasn’t the BENGAY and Matlock type. Nor was she some expert in household chore techniques, or even chocolate chip cookie recipes. She didn’t have an oversized grumpy cat, or some undersized chirpy little dog, but there were parakeets within her heart that kept her company when loneliness set in.

See, she grew up in Pendergrass. I guess that’s somewhere in North Central Georgia, so just deep enough in the South that one could actually see the surface. As a child, she would love to observe the flight patterns of turkey vultures. She loved the way that their feathers frayed through the Southern sky, because where she was from, they were the only things breaking the color line. The experts say that these buzzards share the same soaring shadows as bald eagles, so sitting there, feeling like a carcass, simultaneously she found freedom.

So her mother put her and her sister on the first feather that they could find up North, because she heard that up there, Jim, he doesn’t clip his crows wings. So her mother became the first Nubian in Queens to own her own palace. This was way back, when there was actually enough Big Apple to go around the table. In 1995, on a family vacation, I went to visit this place for the first time. Upon anticipation of patio rocking chairs, bear claw bathtubs, and cypress floors, I was greeted by a hoarder’s paradise.

Priceless papers were piled to the ceiling. The only place to sit was on the back patio, and there, there, surrounding all of us, were stacks upon stacks of bird cages, hundreds of them, no birds, just wrought iron bridged by welding joints in Victorian fashion. All of these devices of entrapment were constructed in such beauty, I didn’t know what to think, you see, last week, I was at the thrift store, and I came across a vintage bird cage. I stood there staring and wondering, “Why is there so much beauty here?” That took me back to my Nana, and how it must have felt losing her son, husband, and the Civil Rights Movement at the same time, and I began to think, what better way to defend for someone’s freedom than to collect those things that trap us; by leaving just one less cage in the world and ensuring another scene of formless flight.

So I started to wonder, how many people did this woman set free? Was you and my father, with the one-way Greyhound ticket in hand and sunglasses on the back of his neck, preventing him from pausing in the past could head to the Mile High so he didn’t have to feel that low again. Was she the miracle that made my mother follow him to the mountains? Did she swoop my grandfather out of cancer’s misery? Did she hold the keys to my throat? Did she stitch my cousins into the Blue Angel Air Force Falcons that they became? Could you feel like you won the Civil Rights Movement in your own backyard?

Let me tell you something. When your time comes, how many people will you have selflessly unshackled? How many doors did you leave open? How many bars did you bend or file through? Did you make sure that the perches around you went unoccupied? Did you tend to their feathers? Did you feed them enough wisdom before their take off? When the caged bird sings, did their hymns rattle the locks or did you swallow their tunes? When the doves cried, did you give any weight to their tears? And when that rooster crows, will you empower it to fly? Nana Nana, why’d you have to go? When we sat around your coffin, I think we all knew that your soul was soaring above us.

Your feathers, they must have been fraying that sky, because everyone in attendance was just a cage that you collected. Poem.

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