When i was about 17 years old, i was a freshman in college. I had a professor by the name of Dr. Paul Gugin at the University of Evansville, and for political science 101, one of the books we were to read was The Black Jacobins by C.L.R.James. This book ended up changing my life forever. I was blessed with the good fortune of graduating high school in the golden era of black music. The culture was thick and vibrant from all angles. The underground was substantial, mainstream was getting flooded with underground like sounds and the culture was experiencing colossal growth. There was the Fab Five at Michigan, Nike was now selling blackness to teenagers everywhere and corporate america followed, everybody was trying to have their brand associated with hip-hop and a lot of artists got paid during that time. I noticed another trend. A lot of these black rappers, singers, producers who were changing the world with their art, were taking on aliases of white people. It was mostly Italian gangster figures. There was of course Gotti at Murder INC. There was Biggie who called himself The Notorious B.I.G. aka Frank White, a fictitious white gangster played by Christopher Walken in the King of New York. Of course you had Capone and Noriega...the list goes on and on. I thought this trend was the stupidest thing I had ever seen. With all of the heroes we had in our history, and real gangsters too, these fools named themselves after white people? Even with all these levels of success and all the money they were making, they mentally had modeled themselves after white people. When i had that realization one day, i was struck. I knew that if i ever had a stage name, it would reflect my love of self and my love of my ancestors. After reading this book, I was overwhelmed with the imagery from the battles of the revolution and they filled my days and nights. Each page i turned took me further into the mind of Toussaint L’ouverture. And i saw in that moment a reflection of this day and time.
(pictured there to the left is Toussaint L'ouverture "The Opener of The Way")
Everything i am now has come formulated to me from this first epiphany. Gatorwood, the name of my program, comes from the legendary Alligator Wood in Haiti which is the meeting place between Henrik Christophe, Dessaline, Toussaint and Bookman, the jamaican called so because he always carried a big book in his hands. It was in this meeting on that night, that these men came together to change the fate of the people of Haiti. The call was made and in that moment, they transformed from slaves into soldiers. And they with their army of freedom fighting black people sent one of the worlds most powerful armies running away like a dog with its tail between its legs. And the first independent black nation in the history of their world was formed. Jean Jacque Dessaline aka The Tiger would become the first president of this newly formed nation after the capture and imprisonment of Toussaint Louverture by Napoleon. He named the country Ayiti which means land of tall mountains in the language of the indigenous taino.
So that is the backstory to the reason that i use the names Toussaint Liberator, Gatorwood Upreach and the tagline From Slave to Soldier. It is all weaved together like this for a reason. i believe that this legacy of fighting for freedom did not die with these ancestors. Nor were they the only ones involved in the fight! But even these names that we know were there are hardly found in any history books! So It is important for us to know our history. And all of these names that i use hearken back to this time time of revolutionary fervor and military brilliance that was the Haitian revolution.
(pictured above is Boukman, credited with being part of the spark of the entire revolution and he alongside a voudoo priestess held a ceremony in the Alligator Wood the night before the rebellion took place. The night they were all transformed from slave to soldiers.)
What was it about the story of Toussaint that was so captivating to me? I think it was the fact that he was very pragmatic. And at first not really that ambitious. As he grew up, he was known for his strength, and he was really good with the horses he tended and eventually taught himself to read and write. His leadership was kinda thrust upon him and at the same time he was seeking it. He was born Breda, but became L’overture which means the "opener of the way." With the French Revolution happening at the same time, it was his letters back and forth to France that allowed the world to know who this once illiterate slave was. His letters were read before parliament and discussed and debated when government officials discussed the “problem in haiti” and he was charged with being the "black diplomat." In fact, he was often thought amongst those in his charge to be a little too trusting of the white folks. He was someone who believed that they would listen to him. He was an early reformer. But at the same time there was a point when he realized diplomacy was not going to get him the results he was seeking.. He grew tired of the runaround and he knew he had to act. When it was time to act, he was prepared.
(pictured right is Henri Christophe, the leader of the Mulatto contingent of the Haitian Rebellion)
His was a peculiar road. He ended up being a soldier within the ranks of the French army and helped them to defend the island against the Spanish and the British. Then, when he was suited by the Spanish and the British to switch sides, he did so at almost exactly the right time. and then somehow he ultimately switched back to the French soundly defeating the Spanish and British once and for all and then turned on the French and began the campaign to take the island back for the people. This event shocked the world! The ouster of the French legion of 18000 men led by Leclerc by 1300 freedom fighters under the leadership of Dessalines is still a feat unparalleled in the history of the world. The french soldiers wrote in their journals that they fought against a man and his spirit.
Where is that resolve today? Where is the collective consciousness? Well, in my mind it exists there underneath the surface waiting to be awakened by the knowledge of OURstory. This is why i spend so much time trying to study more and more of our history and these stories because i believe strongly that if we only knew about ourselves, the power in that knowledge would allow for us to change our situation. For this reason, the words we choose to use in reference to ourselves are very important. It is not often you will hear me refer to my ancestors as slaves. I often use the word freedom fighters because there are too many examples of resistance amongst our people. Despite the countless images thrown at us of the happy slave singing as he worked from cant see in the morning to cant see at night, there is nothing in my blood memory that seems to back that up. At the same time however, i will say i use and am proud of the fact that i am a nigger. H. Rider Decoy convinced me in his book The Nigger Bible that i should not shy away from my niggerness and so i choose not to. And this stance has helped me a great deal in my professional career communication with students within the penal system and within the department of youth services. (pictured to the right is "The Tiger" Jean Jacques Dessalines)
i always get in trouble for cursing when i go into these facilities. but i learned a long time ago the way you talk to people can either endear you to them or make you their enemy. i want to be heard. so i use whatever means necessary. Virgo mutability has been both a blessing and a curse over the years because each shift that happens has the potential to stick for longer than necessary. But as the years progress you start to more and more
i will admit that there was a long time in my life where there was a judgment attached to the way people adapted themselves to the rules of the world. Black reactionary behavior to racial oppression and population control and slavery and brutal full frontal attack on black families was varied. Some people thought that assimilation was the answer. and they fought to have schools like the white folks, businesses like the white folks and jobs like the white folks. In my young revolutionary mind, i lumped all of these individuals into the category of Uncle Tom or worse. I did not overstand at the time that the lifestyle that raised me, the one that my parents adopted, was based on this very approach. Maybe that was what i was rebelling against. My family was trying hard to be that black middle class family. We never quite got there, but we were definitely reaching for it throughout my childhood. i remember being pissed when i came home from college and there was a big screen TV in the house and a playstation and a cable box with hbo and showtime. i was beside myself and couldn't believe it! My family had all kinds of SHIT!. And i had to rough it all them years as a shorty! My little brother was the spoiled little brat having keg parties on the weekend in our house which was the parsonage of the church. My god. Two cars pulling up to the house. Mom at Chrysler, Dad teaching at the local technical college and assistant pastoring at the church. We were the family that the whole neighborhood had they eyes on. Believe me. my days in the street were recorded and not by conventional cameras. But by the eyes of all those church members who really had to know what was up at all times and they always reported to each other and to my parents if it was a matter that concerned them. Like if i was hanging out with the wrong niggas on the corner or something. mom and dad always knew. but they also knew that there was nothing they could do about it. you see somewhere around seventh grade i kinda snapped. the predominantly white private school that i was sent to and the way my pre-teen mind was beginning to detect the inequities started to really have an affect on me. First it was The Autobiography of Malcolm X and then in eighth grade Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and then Manchild in the Promised Land and then Invisible Man. i tried to tackle all of these books at a young age and was blessed with Spike Lee’s X movie just after i had finished reading the book. So my eyes were seeing the world from a different lens. I was seeing the world as it was in reality and not the bubble they were creating for us at the school. And i began to see how i was treated differently in class. If i was caught talking or whispering (picture me whispering!?!?) the reaction was far more intense than it was for some of the other students. This change in behavior and viewpoints extended to more than just the classroom. I was different. Shorter. With my parents. With everyone. I withdrew a bit. And every time anyone saw me, i had a big ol book in my hand trying to make sense of it all. Since our family was in church eight days a week, i would always have some kind of book that i was reading. I would sit through whole services in the back of the church reading these books. I became angrier. My brothers and sister will always talk about how i was alwasy so quick to snap. They used to tease me all the time. There was a doll that came out for little girls at the time called PJ Sparkles. I was Paul Jr of course so they just called me PJ Sparkles when they really wanted to get under my skin. I would get so madd you could actually see the steam coming out of my ears. Do you ever remember watching Marvin the Martian and the way he would start breathing when he got mad? That was me all the time! And it wasnt until i got to college and had my first performance outside of church that i started to think about the ways in which music could combat that. But to be clear it wasn't like it was some big spiritual revelation...it was simply that the quarterback of the football team, this hippie ass country boy from Kentucky was playing guitar and singing and i started singing right along with him. That began the journey of sorts. But that certainly wasn't the end of it....to be continued