For a young poet, inspiration from a distant cousin

Michael S. Weaver

August 25, 1993|By Michael S. Weaver

I STOOD in my blue bedroom in my parents' house in Baltimore and read the passage over and over. There was a name in the text of "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," at least a surname, I knew well -- Goode. It was my grandmother's maiden name. She was my mother's mother, and she lived with us for the last 16 years of her life. Her bedroom was next to mine.

I ran downstairs to ask if that man mentioned in the story of Malcolm X's life, that man by the name of Mal Goode, was any relation to us. I mentioned to my mother that he was a journalist.

"Oh sure," she said. `He calls here every now and then to check on your grandmother. He's her first cousin.`

I know it's a distance from her cousin to mine, but I claimed him immediately. I claimed him with all the exultation that accompanied any discovery of a beacon, for weary travelers or for writers just beginning to find their path. I claimed in the same breath of my astonishment.

"Why didn't you tell me?" I asked my mother.

"We've known about Mal for years. He was on the radio for a long time."

My mother didn't know that I was thinking of dropping out of college to be a writer. I was convinced that a writer should have the world as his classroom. Malcolm X's autobiography helped me to secure that belief.

I had some intuitive sense that I was a poet, among other things, but most surely a poet. I knew that I loved to read. I loved books and paper and typewriters and pencils and pens all my life. However, I did not know the rigor of life itself as a poet lives it, or more specifically, as a poet inclined to lyricism lives it.

I wasn't quite sure what kind of writer Mal was, but I knew he had to love knowledge, and he was part of who I was. His father was the brother of my grandmother's father, Ashton Goode, and Mal and I are descendants of Thomas and Sarah Goode, who were held in slavery. Of historical note, Mal was the first black to be a broadcast journalist for one of the major television networks, ABC. Mal's office was in the United Nations.

At issue here are inspiration, faith and confidence. I knew somewhere inside me that I could write reasonbly well, but that notion was shored up by the example of someone in my family who had made a mark on history in making a career of commenting on history. His example let me know that I could go on. And if I sound corny, forgive me, but positive examples still do mean an awful lot to young African-Americans who want to do something meaningful, whether it's poetry or accounting.

So I went to work in a steel mill and from there to another factory, all the while reading and seeking direction from people who showed me what I should be reading. While doing this, I wrote. I have forgotten how many manuscripts I tossed away from the time I began writing in 1970 or so until I began publishing regularly in 1980. I tossed them aside because I wanted perfection. After 10 years or so, I was convinced my first calling was as a poet, and I had begun to understand that poetry is like taking some kind of vow of faith, a secular faith, for I by no means want to equate poetry with innocence or that kind of sainthood.

Along the way I remembered Malcolm's hours in the prison library and in his cell, and I imagined Mal in his countless encounters with world leaders and with the general public.

Mal called me in 1985, when I had just received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. He called me to congratulate me and to ask about the family.

I had come along my path for 15 years to speak to the beacon I had glimpsed ever so faintly that day in my bedroom, a light as important as those in the first poetry anthologies I studied.

Three years later, I was living in East Orange, N.J. Mal lived only 30 minutes away in Teaneck. That's 30 minutes in good traffic. But in bad traffic, 30 minutes can become a long day's journey into night. I picked a good hour to drive on a Sunday evening and went to visit him and his wife Mary.

Mal held court in a grand way. He and Mary served my wife and me vanilla ice cream, as he went over the story of how he covered the Cuban missile crisis for ABC, which was his first big story. I savored the ice Positive examples mean an awful lot to young African-Americans who want to do something meaningful, whether it's poetry or accounting.

cream and every word he spoke in his wonderful, stentorian voice. Then he asked if I kept up with football. There was a game on that day that he was interested in, and I felt for the first time that he was human and not just that figure from Malcolm's autobiography.

When he told me how he visited his home in Virginia as a child, where my grandmother lived, and how she made these marvelous blackberry pies, I felt that we were indeed family. In a curious way, the pedestrian notion of being a family was caught up in the terribly unordinary rise of history.

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