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Stakes Is High
Born on the after beat
He patted his foot before he walked
—NINA SIMONE, “HEY, BUDDY BOLDEN”
Talb. Talid. Talbit. Tomlid. Tabil. These are all things I’ve been called by people, adults and children alike, who have had the pleasure of reading my name aloud in front of a group of my peers. I learned early on that the average person gives up on a word if it is made up of a series of letters they have never before seen. T-A-L-I-B, pronounced Tah-leeb by my parents and Tah-LIB by most Muslims. I have had schoolteachers, without even attempting to pronounce my name, tell me that they could not pronounce it.
Talib is an Arabic name that means “student” or “seeker of knowledge.” According to the Quran, the prophet Muhammad had an uncle named Abu-Talib, who was Muhammad’s first convert to, or the first student of, Islam. Kweli is a name that exists in many African languages, but most prominently in Swahili and Akan. It means “of truth” or “of knowledge.” The literal translation of Talib Kweli is “seeker of truth and knowledge.” With this name I could not grow up to be a crackhead.
When my parents chose this name out of some African name book in 1975, they could not have known the political connotations that would come to be associated with it. They could not have known that smartphones would autocorrect the spelling of my name from Talib to Taliban, or that executives at Rawkus Entertainment would ask me to consider a professional name change after the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Perry and Brenda Greene only knew that their children must have strong, African names, names that had meaning and would let the world know before we opened our mouths that we had self-esteem and would not be taken for jokes in this world. Like many Black parents of the 1970s, they gave their boys unmistakably African names: Talib Kweli Greene and Jamal Kwame Greene.
During the 1960s, many aspects of the status quo were challenged. By the time Perry and Brenda were ready to have children, in the mid-1970s, Pan-Africanism, or the active celebration of and participation in African culture, had gone mainstream. Brothers and sisters proudly rocked dashikis and Afros, and Ebony and Jet magazines were taking their fashion cues from Africa. Perry and Brenda both rocked Afros, even though Perry’s hairline was making a break for it. They had gone to Ghana and they celebrated Kwanzaa regularly. Their Pan-Africanism was a natural extension of the political philosophy they shared, which was Black Cultural Nationalism. As cultural consciousness began to sneak into Black American homes, Black Cultural Nationalism became the predominant philosophy of forward-thinking Black folk. As a concept, Black Cultural Nationalism began its journey as a child of the Haitian Revolution. Those Haitians influenced Africans all over the diaspora to begin thinking about independence from an overbearing and oppressive Europe.
After the American Revolutionary War, many free and literate Africans in the North of the United States were members of the same Masonic lodges as the white Americans who had gone to war with Great Britain. These white folk were greatly influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, which was taking place in Europe at the time, but their “enlightenment” did not seem to extend to their African brothers. African Masons like Prince Hall and Richard Allen formed separate, but equal in concept, halls for Africans and encouraged Africans to stand on their own without being dependent on European social constructs. These men, along with the Haitians and the Maroon people of Jamaica, were studied by Marcus Garvey, who in June 1919 incorporated the Black Star Line, a shipping company charged with the mission of taking Black people from the Americas back to Africa so they could build lives in the homeland of their ancestors. Marcus Garvey, with his focus on African self-reliance, remains a standard-bearer for Rastafarians, political activists, and Black Cultural Nationalists alike. He had tremendous influence on the Nation of Islam and the Black Power Movement of the 1960s. The term Black Power was made famous by Stokely Carmichael, aka Kwame Ture, and the concept was put into practice when Kwame Nkrumah became president of Ghana. Malcolm X, perhaps the greatest symbol of the Black Power Movement, came out of the Nation of Islam and in 1964 went on to form the Organization of African American Unity, which had more of a Pan-African focus.
Black Cultural Nationalism, and to a larger extent Pan-Africanism, informed the values in our home. Both of my parents were teaching, and although we were living in an integrated neighborhood in Park Slope, Brooklyn, at 701 President Street, my parents enrolled me and Jamal in Weusi Shule, an Afrocentric independent school in Flatbush created by a Black educator named Ayanna Johnson. Weusi Shule later moved to a larger location and changed its name to the Johnson Preparatory School; it is now more Christian based. After two years at Weusi Shule, Jamal and I left to attend Junior Academy, an African-American owned and operated independent school in Bedford-Stuyvesant. My parents chose this school to ensure that we had a nurturing learning environment and that the cultivation of pride and self-esteem were core principles of this environment.
As the son of two teachers, I developed an early love for reading and learned how to write long before I started school. To the dismay of every elementary school teacher I ever had, I held my pen in the awkward fashion of someone who taught himself how to write without listening to instructions. I loved reading about nature, and when I wasn’t reading about it, I tried to be in the midst of it. Our apartment at 701 President was on the first floor, so we had access to the backyard. Jamal and I would stay back there for hours, collecting insects and making rivers in the dirt with the garden hose. We would often try to collect every different species of insect we could find and put them in a fish tank to see how they cohabited. There was a series of children’s books called Childcraft that functioned like an encyclopedia for children, and I identified many of the insects in our backyard from reading those books. I loved those Childcraft books so much I would stay up and read them over and over with a flashlight under my covers after bedtime.
My interest in nature was also stoked by our proximity to Prospect Park. Prospect is Brooklyn’s largest park and has a lake that attracts all sorts of wildlife one doesn’t normally get to see in the city. I would go to the lake and catch frogs, salamanders, and more insects and bring them back home. I always knew how to put a fish tank to good use. As I got older, I focused less on amphibians and insects and started getting into reptiles and birds. I owned a couple of snakes, a few frogs, loads of fish, and two parakeets as pets throughout my early childhood. I got this love for animals from my father, who had a pet python that he gave up when I was born and a dog, King, who passed away of old age when I was about eight.
On many visits to Prospect Park with my father and brother, we would stop to watch Little League baseball games. My father enjoyed watching all sports and was a fan of every New York team, but baseball was his game, and the New York Yankees were his favorite. Each year from spring to fall we would watch every game together. Knowing how much my father loved the sport made my brother and me want to play it, and soon we were members of St. Francis Xavier’s Little League program.
I was naturally athletic and always played well, but I didn’t get really good until I went to baseball camp years later. I began to rack up baseball trophies every season, which was wonderful for my self-esteem. My parents came to every game of mine, and my father soon joined the Little League program as a coach. Playing baseball for my father’s team was one of my greatest childhood experiences. It brought us closer and helped me develop character. I also established a great love for the game, and it is still my favorite sport.
My parents always placed an emphasis on family, and we spent a lot of time either visiting ours or having them over at our apartment. My father was close with his parents—my grandparents, Stanley and Javotte Greene—and with his cousins Jackie and Warren. We would go to New Rochelle or Long Island for the weekends to see these folks. My mother’s family lived mostly in Brooklyn, except for her father, Lloyd, who lived in Harlem. Her mother, my grandmother, and Brenda’s two sisters, Jo Ann and Lori, all lived in Flatbush, and we would alternate spending weekends with them as well. Jo Ann’s daughter, Abena, and her twin sons, Taiwo and Kehinde, were all close to Jamal and me in age, and I spent most of my childhood free time with these first cousins. My cousins were my best friends. In 1986 my mother’s sister Lori gave birth to my cousin Lloyd, named after his grandfather, and he became the baby of our family crew. We would ice-skate in the winter, roller-skate in the summer, and play wiffle ball in the fall. On Friday nights, my grandmother Beverly, who we all called Mama, would have all of her grandchildren over for marathon sessions of Monopoly. We would start at 7:00 or 8:00 p.m., with The Love Boat or Fantasy Island on the TV in the background, and go until everyone fell asleep around 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. These games were friendly but deadly serious. Mama loved to gamble, and Monopoly was a way for her to get a gaming fix and spend quality time with her grandchildren at the same time.
My father and mother also had many friends, mostly other teachers, and they would come over often. My parents’ apartment seemed like the place to be, and they were always hosting. As a college-radio DJ, my father had amassed an impressive vinyl collection spanning many decades and genres. He would play these records at these get-togethers. When it got late and the kids were sent to bed, the song selection would switch up. I remember hearing party records like Dillinger’s “Cocaine” or Shorty Long’s “Function at the Junction” seep up thru the ceiling into my bedroom while I was pretending to be asleep. Straining my ears to make out the rhythms of the songs that my parents played after I went to bed was what took me down the music rabbit hole. I was fascinated that different songs created very different moods. At this young age, my primary interests were still baseball and nature, but music was beginning to flirt with me and would soon become my truest love.
Copyright © 2021 by Talib Kweli