Remembering a Harlem Street Poet
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A Light in the Tunnel
Portrait of a Subway Swami
By Scott Kalechstein
The first time I met Richard, commonly
known as the ‘D’ Train Poet, I was riding a Manhattan
subway. I noticed him right away. Big, black, and beautiful, he
was busy breaking the unwritten but widely adhered to laws of
the city’s underground: Mind your own business. Bury your face
in a newspaper. And, above all, don’t talk to strangers. He
approached me with a twinkle in his eye and an irresistible
question: “Would you like to see a picture of the next savior
I had no idea what he was up to, but
immediately I trusted the playful warmth he was radiating.
“I’d love to!” I said with a smile. He took out a
mirror and held it up to my face. “Surprise, you’re it!”
"Not it!" I was twenty years old,
out on my own for the first time and struggling to make ends
meet, hoping to find a little self-esteem in the process. I was
hawking laundry bags on the streets to pay the rent. I felt
light years away from being a savior.
Every few months I would run into Richard
here and there. For a while I kept my distance. His courageous
self-expression held up an uncomfortable mirror and showed me
how much I was hiding.
One night I was strolling through Greenwich
Village smoking pot. I stumbled upon Richard connecting with a
collection of teenagers who were sitting on a stoop, captivated
by his charisma. As I got closer I heard enough to realize he
was using his gifts of poetry and humor to inspire them to stay
away from smoking. Just as I started to turn around and walk the
other way, he spotted me. I froze.
He called me over and gave me
a big bear hug as I inconspicuously dropped the joint to the
sidewalk and braced myself for his reaction to the pungent cloud
of smoke around me. But either his nose or his heart chose not
to register the aroma, and he immediately engaged me in the sort
of conversation one does one's best to avoid when one is stoned.
He asked me what I did for a living. I told
him about peddling laundry bags, but also that I was in training
to become a rebirther. He became animated and excited. “I’ve
been wanting to find out about rebirthing!” he exclaimed.
Before I had time to guess what was coming next he had taken a
pocket tape recorder out of his briefcase, pressed the record
button, and said, “Scott Kalechstein, professional rebirther,
on rebirthing.” He put the mike up to my mouth, and I managed
to sputter out a few sentences on the simple breathing process
that had changed my life.
Although he had strong feelings about
living a drug-free life, Richard never mentioned the marijuana.
He had even stronger feelings about loving and accepting people
as they were, and seeing the beauty in them even when they
weren’t yet seeing it in themselves.
We kept running into each other in odd
places, and through it all a friendship emerged. I nicknamed him
Swami Subwaynanda, and he liked it. Richard’s subway ministry
was a big part of his life, and the name fit him.
A spiritual teacher I was studying with at
the time warned her students to avoid the subways. She said the
vibrations down there were too dense and could be very draining
to souls seeking to serve humanity. I was glad that Richard
hadn’t studied with her.
Anyone who doubts Jesus’ prophecy that we
would one day do greater works has never seen Richard raise a
crowd of people in a subway car from the dead. Once I saw him
get almost everyone on the train to chant “More hugging, less
mugging!” This was his signature slogan. I started spotting it
on window decals and bumper stickers all over the city. Richard,
who had once been a police officer, had discovered that he
preferred preventing crime with creativity and love to fighting
crime with might.
Besides being a blazing light in the
tunnels of the city, Richard was also an activist, a gospel
singer, a rapper, a minister, a gifted and moving poet, and a
great improviser of songs. We shared wonderful times together
making up songs in the moment, and he was a big fan of my newly
emerging musical career. It was thrilling to have a man twenty
years my senior believe in me so enthusiastically.
One tune of mine, "Follow Your Heart,"
was his clear favorite. “That song’s meant to be BIG, Scott!
The whole world needs to know about that song!” A
hopelessly white folksinger, I wrote and sung it as a ballad.
Richard thought it was more suited for gospel. He performed and
recorded it at his church. When he shared the tape with me, it
was so full of his heart and soul I could hardly recognize my
Richard was a Christian, and loved Jesus in
a big way. He was filled with a sense of purpose, and considered
himself a missionary of sorts. But he didn’t share his church
or his religion; he shared his Spirit. And I had never before
met a traditional Christian who so honored everyone else’s
spiritual and religious points of view. His missionary position
was that everybody belonged on top.
When I moved to California in 1990 I
didn’t keep in touch with Richard. Early this year he found
me, through the grace of the Internet. I called him and we had a
wonderful conversation, catching each other up on the too many
years we had been out of touch. Feeling like the prodigal son
returning, I apologized for how long I had been out of contact.
He welcomed me with open arms, and expressed a strong desire to
hear the music that had come out of me since leaving N.Y.C. I
sent him my CD’s- eight discs and thirteen years of material
he had not heard before.
Richard’s wife recently phoned to tell me
that he had just had a heart attack on a bus and didn’t make
it. I fought back tears and shock as I listened to what she had
to say. She wanted me to know that he had spoken of me often
over the years and had loved me deeply, and also that he had
been thoroughly enjoying the music I had sent. I told her how
much he had meant to me, that he had infused me with his Spirit
in such a way that my life had been forever touched and blessed.
Re-connecting just before he made his
passing was such a gift for both of us.
Richard, I will always be grateful for your
example of fearless living and loving, as well as the interest
you took in me, my talents, and my life. I will always remember
you holding that mirror to my face the first time we met. Then I
thought you were delightfully crazy, and now I’ve spent the
rest of my life aspiring to your level of insanity. You passed
your torch on to me and countless others. Help us hold it high,
dear brother, and continue to support us in being the light that
we are, the light that you showed me in the mirror, the light in
the tunnel. I love you and thank you for your precious gifts to
me and to this planet.
“So forget about race, religion, color or
creed. More huggin less muggin's what everybody need!”
- Richard Bartee, 1943-2003
The scoop on Scott Kalechstein and his music can be
found at: http://www.scottsongs.com He can be
emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can also listen to and order Scott’s CD’s over a secure
server by visiting http://www.cdbaby.com/group/scottsongs
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* * * *
Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays
Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a
collection of fourteen essays by scholars and
creative writers from Africa and the Americas.
Called one of two significant critical works on
Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late
1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of
Carter G. Woodson and
Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as
well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations
were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early
essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish
medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an
historical context for understanding 20th-century
creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone
writers, such as Cuban
Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist,
Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the
significance of Negritude in Latin America.
This collaborative text set the tone for later
conferences in which writers and scholars worked
together to promote, disseminate, and critique the
literature of Spanish-speaking people of African
descent. . . .
Cited by a
literary critic in 2004 as "the seminal study in the
field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which
most scholars in the field 'cut their teeth'."
Greenback Planet: How the Dollar Conquered
the World and Threatened Civilization as We Know It
By H. W. Brands
In Greenback Planet, acclaimed historian H. W. Brands charts the dollar's astonishing rise to become the world's principal currency. Telling the story with the verve of a novelist, he recounts key episodes in U.S. monetary history, from the Civil War debate over fiat money (greenbacks) to the recent worldwide financial crisis. Brands explores the dollar's changing relations to gold and silver and to other currencies and cogently explains how America's economic might made the dollar the fundamental standard of value in world finance. He vividly describes the 1869 Black Friday attempt to corner the gold market, banker J. P. Morgan's bailout of the U.S. treasury, the creation of the Federal Reserve, and President Franklin Roosevelt's handling of the bank panic of 1933. Brands shows how lessons learned (and not learned) in the Great Depression have influenced subsequent U.S. monetary policy, and how the dollar's dominance helped transform economies in countries ranging from Germany and Japan after World War II to Russia and China today.
* * * * *
Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of
By John D'Emilio
Bayard Rustin is one of the most
important figures in the history of
the American civil rights movement.
Before Martin Luther King, before
Malcolm X, Bayard Rustin was working
to bring the cause to the forefront
of America's consciousness. A
teacher to King, an international
apostle of peace, and the organizer
of the famous 1963 March on
Washington, he brought Gandhi's
philosophy of nonviolence to America
and helped launch the civil rights
movement. Nonetheless, Rustin has
been largely erased by history, in
part because he was an African
American homosexual. Acclaimed
historian John D'Emilio tells the
full and remarkable story of
Rustin's intertwined lives: his
pioneering and public person and his
oblique and stigmatized private
It was in the tumultuous 1930s that
Bayard Rustin came of age, getting
his first lessons in politics
through the Communist Party and the
unrest of the Great Depression.
A Quaker and a radical pacifist, he went to
prison for refusing to serve in World War II, only
to suffer a sexual scandal. His mentor, the great
pacifist A. J. Muste, wrote to
him, "You were capable of making the
'mistake' of thinking that you could
be the leader in a revolution...at
the same time that you were a
weakling in an extreme degree and
engaged in practices for which there
was no justification."
* * * * *
Laying Down the Sword
Why We Can't Ignore the Bible's Violent
Commands to kill, to commit ethnic
cleansing, to institutionalize segregation,
to hate and fear other races and
religions—all are in the Bible, and all
occur with a far greater frequency than in
the Qur’an. But fanaticism is no more
hard-wired in Christianity than it is in
Laying Down the Sword, “one of
America’s best scholars of religion” (The
Economist) explores how religions grow
past their bloody origins, and delivers a
fearless examination of the most violent
verses of the Bible and an urgent call to
read them anew in pursuit of a richer, more
genuine faith. Christians cannot engage with
neighbors and critics of other
traditions—nor enjoy the deepest, most
mature embodiment of their own faith—until
they confront the texts of terror in their
heritage. Philip Jenkins identifies the
“holy amnesia” that, while allowing
scriptural religions to grow and adapt, has
demanded a nearly wholesale suppression of
the Bible’s most aggressive passages,
leaving them dangerously dormant for
extremists to revive in times of conflict.
Jenkins lays bare the whole Bible, without compromise or
apology, and equips us with tools for reading even the most
unsettling texts, from the slaughter of the Canaanites to the
alarming rhetoric of the book of Revelation.
* * * * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
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Ancient African Nations
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If you like this page consider making a donation
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Negro Digest /
Browse all issues
* * * * *
The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Only a Pawn in Their Game
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for
George Jackson /
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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
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