AWP in New York City: Poets, Writers, Publishers, Everything About Writing: Let’s Meet At the Autumn House Press Book Table

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The Associated Writers and Writing Program (AWP) conference has come around this year again, and this time, we’re moving in on the Big Apple. Already, friends have contacted friends, new phone numbers have been exchanged, those who were lucky to get their panel accepted are bracing in to present, new authors are about to sign new books, publishers are going to be there too, to meet potential authors, literary magazine publishers, journalists, poets, poets, poets are going to be all over the place like crazy, and of course, some folks are going to be interviewing for jobs in the middle of all of this crowd of more than seven thousand registrants, and did I hear that AWP is so sold out that there will be no one registering on site, no room in the INN, and oh, my God!

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—–AWP – Austin TX in 2006- Lydia Melvin (Meta Sama) and me at our publisher, New Issues Press book table where Jade’s first book had just come out——-

For some of us who love to write and to see our work published, AWP has been a place for finding a base. When I went to my first AWP in 1999 in Albany New York, the city on a hill where the walls of official government buildings are marble even on the outside in that hilly town. I was the African woman everyone was surprised to see at a conference that almost saw no African presence. There were hardly any black people around, I tell you, and yet, my publisher, the late Herbert Scott of New Issues Press and Prose was confident that I would make it. “You’ll survive, Patricia, you will.”

He believed in me, so I took on AWP, jumped in the Western Michigan University van with him and three other grad students who were taking turns to drive. I had decided I had never driven anywhere that far from Kalamazoo before, and most of all from Kalamazoo to Albany, and I was not signing up to drive, and of course, Herb looked at me with that disapproving look, but I didn’t budged and didn’t drive. “If you didn’t sign up, you can’t drive now,” he told me when suddenly, I felt like driving after we’d overcome some hills or because I opened my eyes during the night and thought the car would throw us down the mountain.

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—-AWP -Chicago, 2004- New Issues Press book table- Ever Saskya, New Issues Press poet and I pose for a shot. Ever’s book had just been released—

 

So, there was I in Albany, signing books, attracting conference attendants who stopped by our table just because of my accent. “So you’re from Africa?” People would ask me,”and how did you end up here?” They’d stand, surprised, and I wondered then and now whether they bought my books in good numbers because they liked me, hated to make me feel rejected or simply because they were surprised at my accent or by my boldness.Was my poetry that good, I wondered. Whatever it was, it was good to sell books those first years.

And I have survived well, thanks to Herb Scott for that small beginning. That year, I was so afraid of going to AWP that I didn’t book a hotel room in time or didn’t have the money to book a room that year. After all, I was a PhD student with a family of six, trying to recover from the Liberian civil war even while that war still raged, trying to joggle my newly turned-teenage two older kids, trying to joggle my beloved husband, and everything a woman joggles, trying to make sense of the news of on-going war at home, trying to be helpful to ailing parents, dying cousins, uncles and neighbors at home, etc. etc.

I got bunked up in a Best Western with another younger grad female student on New Issues Press booking, and stood at the table for days to pay for my free hotel bed.

From then on, I discovered that AWP was indeed very very white, but that there was still room for me, the African woman with the African accent, writing poetry that people were beginning to accept and love in America where everything African is unknown, and best of all was that I was building up a new family of poets who were of all races, male and female, and I was also learning that the life of a poet is different from any other life because you belong in a community, and that I was also here on this earth to change the way things look before I arrived.

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___ AWP – Vancouver-The late Herb Scott, founder of New Issues Press standing next to New Issues current Managing Editor, Marianne Swierenga at the book table in Vancouver, Canada——

I went to every AWP since ’99 beside Vancouver. I don’t know why I didn’t go, but maybe I was afraid of another country, maybe. There was Kansas City, and then came AWP New Orleans soon after September 11. And then, I got one more book published from just being a part of an organization where I met publishers and friends who were like and unlike me. I got on panels and did readings, and saw another African or two at the AWP conferences following. There is always room for one even if that room is not as open as should be, but there is always room for another.

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——(AWP- Chicago 2004, Ade-Juah, my then ten year daughter, our youngest and I walk through the Book Exhibition hall at the Palmer House Chicago. Every now and then, I take a child with me to AWP. Ade loved meeting the many great writers and publishers, and collecting AWP pins and pencils during the last days of the conference. She still remembers some of the writers by their names up to this date.)
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Now AWP conference in New York City is full, I hear and I’ve read. I will be there however, having signed up early as always. My new publisher of my third book, Autumn House has signed me up to be at the table at 1 pm on the 31st to sign books, that is if anyone cares to come by and buy my books. If they do, thanks to them because there are so many books, anyone can get overlooked in the crowd of great writers.

Beside book signings, there are numerous other things I may be doing. Eating with friends, visiting with old friends from grad school, making new friends. I will also be reading at the New school in Greenwich Village. I am so honored to read with such a good group, and then I will be reading with a friend of mine, Ruby Harmon. It’s going to be hectic, but that’s why one attends a writers’ conference, to work.

____Here are some of my most lasting memories of past AWP conferences. In AWP conference in Atlanta last year, I was pulled to PEN America reception where I met all of these great writers as AWP draws out. Right before me in the crowd of writers eating and drinking was Rita Dove and her husband who had over heard me telling a Mexican writer that I would be attending the 17th International Poetry Festival of Medellin in the summer of 2007 as an invited guest. Rita and her husband, German born novelist, Fred Viebahn drew closer to us, and I was introduced to them. We were now in a circle of about six writers who had had the Medellin experience, and everyone was excited to recount their stories about the famous festival. Rita and Fred stood there and both took turns excitedly telling me about the International Poetry Festivals held every year in Medellin, and assured me that I would have a good time and not to worry. After a long conversation with them and others in a small circle while the others around us chattered in the small room, I realized I wanted my college son, MT Wesley, whom I had brought along to the Atlanta conference to meet Rita and her husband, especially, since they had a daughter at the University of Rochester where my son is studying.

My son, who had just arrived on a plane from Rochester came up quickly to the PEN America reception. I was so excited, I was beside myself. My son was going to be meeting a great American poet like Rita tonight. Of course, I’d met Rita numerous times at AWP, but had never been in a close conversation with her this long, so it was great.

MT, then a junior student at college, came up and I introduced Rita and her husband to him. But his eyes did not light up and he was not as impressed as I was. So I said to him, “MT, do you know who this is?” His eyes had that look of “okay, Mom, who is Rita Dove?”

“MT, ” I said again, “Did you learn any literature in high school and in college?”

“Mom, please help me, who is she?” MT, his hand in Rita’s hand was unlike the kid I thought I would have, verse in literature and all of the great writers, especially, of the black world. So, I was embarrassed.

Rita said, “It’s okay, hi MT, I’m Rita.”

“Hi, nice meeting you,” he smiled and said “Sorry, Mom,” I don’t know all the great poets you know.” k

“We have a lot that our schools are not teaching our kids,” I said to my embarrassment. “Every American kid and every black kid should know the great writers of our world,” I said. I then excused my not so literary son from the group, and moved him around the room to meet all of the poets and writers in the room that evening. I wanted to give him a literary lesson at this very literary conference. He shoke hands with Sonia Sonchez and all of the great writers in the room before I let him off to run back downstairs. I am sure that he was glad to be set free from what he called, “a bunch of crazy poets.”

But MT was the wrong kid. He told me throughout the Atlanta conference how much he disliked artist and their confused festivals and writers conferences like the one he was attending with me. The book tables and booths, he thought were all confusing to a guy who loves computers and Economics, law and the like.

And yet, this was not the most humbling of my AWP experiences. My first humbling experience was the Albany conference. I had just published my first book, Before the Palm Could Bloom in 1998, and felt like the world was now opening up to me again after all of my loss, and that I had achieved something even if that was just a small thing. So, I wanted everyone to know about my new book at that AWP.

Down the book exhibit aisle from New Issues Press book table was a tall, slender, blond woman looking like someone in their late fifties. She was staring ahead, so I drew her in a conversation. I was still bold enough to speak to strangers faster than I am today, having only been in this country then less than ten years. She lit up when I greeted her, and introduced herself, her calm voice of confidence. Then she asked about me, my books, etc., and I told her about my excitement of having published my first book. She smiled that knowing smile.

We talked for a little while and I wanted to know about her book or books, and if I could look at them if she had published a book. She smiled again, maybe feeling sorry for me or maybe identifying with me because maybe I was taking her to a past memory. “Do you have a book?” I asked.

You’ve got to understand that at the time I knew that you didn’t have to have a book to be here, but I wanted to meet people with books and to be encouraged by their presence.

“Yes,” she said. “I really like you, Patricia. You are so real,”

“Thanks. Can we go to your book table?” I asked. “How many books do you have?” I asked.

We walked, and as we walked, she said in that humble way. “I have published fifty books, Patricia,” she said in that soft voice only common to the famous. It is like they do not have to make an effort to say something about themselves because you should know if you knew any better.

I almost slipped and fell in the middle of the aisle, just hearing her say, “Fifty books.”

“But some of my publishers are here. The big ones are not here,” she said, taking my hand as if to help me not fall from the shock that here was a woman like me, not black, but a woman still, with fifty books.

I felt like a mosquito right there, a tiny little ant, standing and looking at this beautiful women who was humble enough to be here standing with me. This to me was AWP- where one can mix with the great and the small, the famous and the not so known, the student and the professor. I am looking forward to this sort of inspiration as I drive up to the big Apple for my ninth AWP conference. AWP conferences make me realize each year that there is more I need to do to be where I need to be when I visit the booths and see how many books being published and how many better writers are out there making a difference. And yet, I see myself also as an inspiration to someone like me who came to this country with nothing, someone who believes that there is still room in the INN for everyone, yes, there is room for all of us.

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Two of my favorite poets, Paula McLain and Anthony Butts signing books at AWP Texas, 2006- New Issues Press table.

I will conclude on a poem I wrote on the train as I left AWP 2002 in New Orleans. That poem, “There’s Another New Orleans,” was pulled from Becoming Ebony before it was published, and never made it in The River is Rising, my third book. But it was published on my college website and in Chicken Bones soon after Katrina’s flooding of New Orleans. The poem below:

There’s Another New Orleans
By Patricia Jabbeh Wesley


Where the roads crawl backwards
behind streets broken up in many places
and children stand in doorways,
staring. Their eyes look far away,
and a woman stands by the street corner
hollering for a dollar to take her to the shelter.
At the Chinese restaurant,
a blind man was having a meal after
a long day collecting coins that we
tourists threw into a plastic bowl
on Canal Street.

My girlfriends and I took a streetcar
from Bourbon down to the Gardens
where colonial mansions rush past you
with lost history. I didn’t know
you could ride a streetcar on a sidewalk
and watch houses disappear into history.
I wanted to feel the years.
I wanted to holler until I cried, or danced
through these colonial-mansion-streets
so the past would come flying out like
chicken feathers.

The colonial houses want to tell me
we have done away with the past?
But the streets behind our view crawl
backwards into history we came here
to remember or forget.
Someone should have kept the years for us.
Someone should have carved up the years
on pieces of metal for us.

At the restaurant door, I lose my step
in the dark. A five-year-old-boy
is playing the harmonica–nine o’clock
at night on Thursday. On Bourbon Street
nude girls are dancing in a bar,
and the five-year-old-boy outside,
on the sidewalk collects brown coins
into a plastic bowl. Will we ever know
what pennies can do?
Down the road, we forget the child,
the penny-collecting-harmonica-playing-child.
Just a few steps away, a saxophone
wails on a thin string. At Bourbon and Canal,
tourists come out in colonies, holding
on to the thin evening air.

What brings out the best of Canal Street
brings out the worst of Canal Street.
The Saxophone player sweats and balloons
hard into the night air of footsteps coming
and going in search of food and drinks
and happiness. Lovers holding on to each
other as if afraid of unfamiliar ghosts.

There’s another New Orleans, I say,
where the blind man rises at dawn
below our passing feet.
You will not see him beneath the footsteps.
The tall buildings will lose him too,
in the French Quarters, where the smell
of Cajun spices and crawfish drowns us tourists.
The Gumbo tasted like home food to me,
and my God, they brought Jollof Rice
all the way here, and named it Jambalaya.

Our waitress placed me in the middle
of people eating fresh oysters and drinking
red wine. The wines and hot peppers will drown
only the moment. Outside the night air,
on our way back to where hotel rooms await us,
there, again is the five-year-old,
somebody’s son–the child who plays
the harmonica like no other person
in the whole world.

MARCH 2002

Posted in About Poetry Festival, All About Liberia & the Diaspora, Announcements & Upcoming Events, Immigrant, My Poetry Friends, Poetry, Poetry Writing. Comments Off on AWP in New York City: Poets, Writers, Publishers, Everything About Writing: Let’s Meet At the Autumn House Press Book Table

Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement: Immigrants of African Descent Should Remember the Shoulders We Stand On

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Dr. Martin Dr. Martin Luther Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, the fighters, both white and black gave a lot to all of us, people of color, Immigrants of African descent, Black Americans as well as to all of white America. It is what we have done and will do with such a freedom that helps us remember.

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the leaders who fought for our Civil Rights in the United States are inarguably the fathers and mothers of the freedoms we African immigrants and immigrants of color enjoy today. It is easy to forget because many of us were not here to see how far we’ve come as a people.

One of my most favorable people I know is a woman I called, Grandma Laurine Brown who lived in Kalamazoo MI, when my family and I lived there. We adopted Grandma, the grandmother of my girlfriend, Narda during our seven years in K-zoo. Grandma, who celebrated her 90th birthday before my family and I moved to Pennsylvania never forgot to remind us younger people of how far we had come as a people, whether black African immigrants or black Americans. Today, Grandma is still strong at almost 98 years old.

Whenever we would get together for a celebration or just a visit, for dinner, family time, or just so Narda’s children and ours would play, we’d be sitting there talking and eating at some snacks, sometimes in Narda’s home or at mine, and there we were, complaining often about the injustices and discriminations we had seen that week or that month or that year. One of the things we African immigrants discover very fast is that instead of black people complaining about colonialism and corrupt government officials and dictators in our countries, here in America the issue is more about how subtle and institutionalized discrimination is, and how widespread it can be, even so that one has to strain their eyes and ears to find out they’re being set aside for someone else lighter skinned than them. Of course, Africans take a longer time to discover all of this, and when they do, they are often shocked and angry.

Since we were not a bunch of intellectuals trying to dissect civil society’s evils during those get together times, our complaining was not a regular thing, but when we did, we did. But there we’d be in our cold K-zoo wintry town, and we’d be laughing at our problems or angry about our problems of that week, and Grandma, with her beautiful silver hairs thinning out and her often upbeat spirit, would say, “We’ve come a long way, my children, we’ve come a long way,” stopping us in our conversation.

“If you’d seen what I have lived through, you will know that you have nothing to worry about. I am just glad to go to God, knowing how far black people have come to be here,” she’d wiggle her strong body around the room and leave our complaining selves standing there. The hopes she had carried for decades of her very long life and the joy and spark in her eyes were my hopes of things to come.

This brings me to my point of African immigrants, immigrants of African descent or people of color.

Mostly, my points here are for African immigrants who have come to these United States since the early 1970s, first, as students who came and returned home on the most part, then in the 1980s, coming mostly now as immigrants or staying after their education. In the 1990s, wars in West Africa propelled hundreds of thousands of us to immigrate, some for a brief time, but most, forever to a land that had become more free because of the Civil Rights Movement.

Because of the freedom that others fought for, the US government made it possible for thousands of immigrants from all over Africa to come and find a home in this country. As we celebrate Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement and legacy, the question is how do we as immigrants see ourselves? Do we stand aside and watch as if this is not our history and they did not fight for us or do we celebrate and help to make the world better as is expected?

Whether or not we feel like celebrating or studying the history of how it is that we can equally fight for jobs alongside everyone, both whites and blacks, we have much to be thankful for. I know for a fact that from the understanding of human movement, had the Civil Rights fight not taken place, had King not given up his life for the movement, had he fled from the call that God placed upon him, had he not accepted this great call to die for his people, had he said, “hey God, find someone else to do this dirty job,” many of us would never have come here. One example I have is that if you look at Africa itself, the Republic of South Africa under Apartheid at that same time did not see other African immigrants flock out there to try and become South Africans.

When Africans and black people could not eat in the same restaurants as white people, when black people’s children could not play on the same block as white people’s children and when they could not go to the same schools or ride the same buses, I tell you, my people, we did not get on planes in droves trying to come to the United States, and those that came were not free to love this country because of what they saw.

But lest we forget that others fought for what we of all races and creeds enjoy today, we need to stop and teach our children something. We need to know that the fact that Obama, the son of a Kenyan man and a white woman is not only running, but is doing what black candidates could not do in having supporters of all races no matter what, tells us that yes, as my beautiful adopted, Grandma Laurine said over and over, “Yes, we’ve come a long way!”

But this means that those of us immigrants standing on the fence need to get off the fence and live the American dream that others have fought to get us to share in. I do not believe that that dream is only for color or black people whose heritage is in the history of Slavery. Many people often think it means that. No, Dr. King and all of those, both whites and blacks who fought for our freedom would not have suffered for that kind of half freedom. They fought for racial equality- finish, as they say in Liberia.

So you cannot say “they did not fight for me.” I believe that that dream and its fulfillment then and still to come is for all: Blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians, every body. That’s the reason why America is such a great country. There certainly is no place on earth where everyone of every race and creed, religious belief and sexual orientation can have the rights to be protected under the law. This is why we call this place, America, where you now live.

Dr. Dickson Redd, A Liberian Educator, Scientist, Father, Husband, Mentor and Christian Professional Is No More: Another Liberian Hero Dying in Exile: May His Soul Rest in God’s Arms Forever

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Dr. Dickson Redd is no stranger to many of us who studied at the University of Liberia from the 1970s up to the beginning of the Liberian civil war. Dr. Redd also taught at the College of West Africa before the civil war. Dr. Redd, a Bio-Chemist, the Christian father of nine naturally born children, a father to many of his students, a loving husband to a woman I call, Sis Bridgette, and a man with Liberia on his mind is now no more. He will be missed by Liberia and thousands of us who were touched by his life.

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Here, Dr. Redd is standing with his wonderful wife, Bridgette Redd of many, many years.

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The Candle May Burn Itself Out and the Night May Be Upon Us, But the Heavenly Gates Have Been Flung Wide Open to Let In A Great Hero: Well done, My Good and Faithful Servant, Well Done.

Dr. Redd, as many of us students at the University of Liberia came to know the fatherly professor of Biology and Chemistry, was my mentor. He and his wife, Sis. Bridgette saw my husband and me grow up to become husband and wife, and even after we were married and having our own children, the both of them were often there when we needed them for advice and encouragement, for prayers, or just hot pepper soup and fufu in their home on the Old Road Sinkor in Monrovia. Sis Bridgette was a mother of nine children, and it would seem that she’d be too busy to stop and chat or to offer a word of advice because as we often would joke her, she was always having a new baby. But she’d hold a baby under one arm and with the other arm, put her arm around you, and often, Dr. Redd would be there, his eyes smiling, waging a finger, “Listen to her, Pat, she knows what she’s talking about,” he’d walk to the back of their home or into the room, smiling.

His passing is a very personal sorrow for me because of how much Dr. Redd and his family meant to my family and me. I recall my bridal shower at their home, the room filled with my girlfriends, family, and well-wishers, all women, and Sis Bridgette who had just had her second daughter, and of course, Dr. Redd, driven far from their home because there were way too many giggling college girls and women for a man to handle. All of the men, who were of course in the majority at this time in their family had taken cover somewhere while we laughed and talked and I pretended to be the cute bride to be among her girl soldiers. These were memorable years, and I am sure many other more serious Chemistry and Bio-Chemistry students have their own memories. My own husband has his own. This is indeed sad news. Blessed are those who leave their footprints in the sands to be remembered like Dickson Redd.

There was something charming about their relationship that every younger woman wanted the secret to. Every girl in the Varsity Christian Fellowship that I was a part of wanted to take something from that electricity which classified Sis Bridgette’s and Dr. Redd’s long marriage. If we knew the secret, we would steal it, I often thought. I knew so many of my friends who wanted a marriage just like the Redds, wanted the patience and the love they shared between them, wanted to have the beautiful babies they had, and most of all, we all wanted to have the God that these two lovely creatures had. Their home would go on to survive the civil war, years of being stranded in another country, of losing everything, would survive all of the losses of family and homeland and all that life had promised them. They would survive and raise so many children in the midst of this great loss.

Today is a sad day for Liberia. Dr. Redd was not simply a teacher; he was an innovator. His love for Liberia and for students took him to the TV screens in Monrovia during the week in better times i Liberia, and even though many of us who did not understand Chemistry could not follow what Dr. Redd was saying on TV, we were proud that someone we knew cared enough to be so innovative, teaching us Chemistry on TV.

The civil war drove Dr. Redd and his family to the US, where he had studied years before the war, and for the last almost twenty years, he clung on to life and family, to hope and to faith. Tonight as I wept with Sis Bridgette on the phone, I was reminded of how in our lives, there are so many heroes who help give us life. As a young woman in college in the late turbulent 1970s in Liberia, folks like Dr. Dickson Redd and his wife, Bridgette came to my rescue. Yes, in Africa, it does take a village to raise one child, and for me and for hundreds of other younger men and women, that village was made up of folks like Dr. Dickson Redd and his lovely wife. What is sad however, is that many of us who would have in turn become that village for his own children had to abandon that village for the Diaspora of America.

The idea of Diaspora is not just about being away from home. The idea of Diaspora is also about being cut off from your roots, from the village that has made you, from the people who made up that village, of not knowing where the village is when you need it or when you need to contribute to it, of being isolated from that connecting whole of the body, of having connections lost to you. I felt that sense of loss today when I got the news of Dr. Redd’s home going.

Many of us Liberians live day by day knowing that those we believe are still alive may actually be dead and those we believe died in the war may actually be alive. Today if you hear the news, you should know that a great man has left us. Dr. Dickson Redd, father of nine, Liberian Scientist and educator, the wonderful husband and mentor to many went home to be with the Lord on January 14, 2008, and was buried today, January 19, 2008.

I am a product of the many sacrifices Dr. Redd made as a Liberian educator in a country that was too broke to pay its professors, and in the midst of that scarcity, brought war upon its people. One of these days, I believe, we who believe in the resurrection of the dead in Christ will see Dr. Redd again. To Sis Bridgette and the children, I say “Never Mind Ya,” like Liberians say. “Let God heal your heart and dry your tears, yah.”

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Announcement From the Family:

A loving husband, father, grandfather, brother, friend et al … We at FrontPageAfrica.com regret to announce the death of Dr. Dickson Redd. This sad event occurred at 5:45pm on January 14, 2008 in North Carolina.

Dr.Redd will be remembered by his children (both from his marriage and the many students of the College of West Africa and the University of Liberia).

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Dearest Friends:As many of you know, we lost our Father (Dr. Dickson D. Redd), Monday 14/Jan/2008 at 5:45 pm. Thank you all for the phone calls and support. You all mean so much to us. Thanks.
1.) Daddy is at the following funeral home:
Chappell’s Funeral Home; 555 Creech Road; Garner, NC 27529
2.) Memorial Service and Funeral will be held at:
Faith Alliance Church; 2225 Aversboro Road; Garner, NC 27529
3.) Memorial Service and Funeral will be at: Saturday, January 19, 2008 at 11:00 AM
4.) The family is asking that you do not send flowers. Monetary donations should be made to:
Bridgette A. Redd
105 Havenview Court
Garner, NC 27529
5.) If you have any questions call:
· Bridgette Redd (919) 661-7941
· Benedict and Amelia Witteveen (919) 833-6883
· Julie Redd (952) 457-4712 Email: julie.redd@district196.org
· Wim Redd ( )
· Siechieh B. Redd (919) 604-4974 Email: clinredd@aol.com
· Julian Redd (330) 573-1511 Email: dogfiveduck@yahoo.com
· Leo Nicole Saydee (919) 649-9980 Email: luesaydee@yahoo.com
· Amelia Redd (919) 798-1691
· Deedee Redd (919) 601-4196 Email: apolloredd@yahoo.com
· Mitchen Redd (919) 601-5508
· Dandu Redd (919) 601- 4037

Blessings,

Siechieh Redd

Posted in All About Liberia & the Diaspora, Announcements & Upcoming Events, Blogroll, Immigrant. Comments Off on Dr. Dickson Redd, A Liberian Educator, Scientist, Father, Husband, Mentor and Christian Professional Is No More: Another Liberian Hero Dying in Exile: May His Soul Rest in God’s Arms Forever

While Charles Taylor’s Trial Resumes in the Hague and His Family and Church Pray For His Acquittal in Monrovia, The Liberian Truth Reconciliation Commission (LRC) and the Public Listen to Heartbreaking Stories From Victims of the Fourteen-Year Liberian Civil War: But There’s the Liberian Question

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After nearly two decades since the first shot was fired in Northern Liberia and the first bomb went off, we still wait for justice. We still stand at a pause so that someone will stop and admit that something went wrong when Charles Taylor and his crazy rebels broke through our country, and destroyed hundreds of thousands of our people, devastated the entire country, raped women, men, and children, and forced tens of thousands of men and small boys to kill their own countrymen in what they called their fight to deliver our country from Samuel Doe.

In case you don’t recall, let me help you remember. I am talking about the Liberian civil war that started in 1989 and ended in 2003, the war started by Charles Taylor, the one that introduced children as young as five year olds to Ak-47s and M-16s, the war that saw a violence beyond the realms of a guerrilla warfare. That is the war I am referring to when I speak of the infamous Charles G Taylor of Liberia.

Charles Taylor, who is the first former African leader ever to stand trial for cruelty to humanity now sits in court and claims he is innocent of a war he was proud of for over a decade. He is of course being accused by Sierra Leone, not really by his own countrymen whose nation he brought the original war upon. He is accused of having ordered the massacre of Sierra Leonean nationals, of ordering countless innocent people to be killed, of ordering Sierra Leonean rebels to hack off the limbs of innocent women, children and men for the sake of taking over their country’s diamond trade, of trading guns for diamond, yes, “blood diamond,” as Americans came to know it. The drama of a war that took over the entire West African region, a violence that still lingers on today, sent all of us into involuntary exile forever. The drama of this evil that was the worst of its kind at the close of the 20th century into the 21st century is still unfolding in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and in the Hague. But the irony, which of course, is the saddest of our reality as West Africans is that Charles Taylor’s family and church members are praying and fasting that the God above us, the God who was witness to the massacre of an entire nation should come down and attest to Taylor’s innocence.

They are praying that Taylor should be acquitted of the charges Sierra Leoneans have levied against him. They are not praying for God’s will to be done-oh, as Liberians would say. They are not praying for justice to be done-oh. They believe that Taylor is innocent and that those limbless people testifying against him should be made to understand that they are wrong. What a sad day when Liberians can come to this. And yet, this is not surprising since it took Liberians to kill up their own people for more than fourteen years.

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A Liberian survivor walking on shells in Monrovia in the 1990s.

But the drama is made even more interestingly sad because in Liberia, there is another historical event unfolding. It seems there is no shortage of drama even after fourteen years of the drama of warfare. Liberians are publicly testifying to the horrific violence we experienced in that war. This is a good thing for all of us. The dead will be remembered in the telling of these stories, so it is a good thing for Africa. In the United States, the UK, and in other parts of the world, the Minnesota Advocates Liberia Truth Commission is also taking statements of Liberians in the Diaspora. I was in a meeting of Advisory Board Members of the LRC in the Diaspora as we were briefed by Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights and LRC staff on the importance of taking statements from victims of the Liberian civil war.

One of the most important things victims need to know is that they need to tell their stories without fear of intimidation, to recount the horrors they and their families suffered without fear for their lives. In Monrovia and in the United States, many people are coming forward to tell their stories. These statement givers are calling names and implicating the perpetrators of the evils of the past, and are telling their stories, revealing a truth that has been hidden for so long. They are telling their stories to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia in one of the most powerful and yet painful experiences of that war. But will the truth finally convince all of us Liberians that something went wrong in that nation or will we continue to pretend that the past should bury itself?

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Former Liberian Warlord turned President Charles Taylor is seen in court as his trial reopened at the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague, Netherlands, Monday Jan. 7, 2008. (AP Photo/POOL/Michael Kooren)

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Liberian boy soldier firing in the distance during the Liberian civil war.

With the end of the fourteen year civil war, Taylor on trial for crimes against Sierra Leone and its people, Liberia is attempting to come to grips with our own devils. Interestingly, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia has a huge responsibility in a country where many of the perpetrators of the violence live side by side with those who will be telling of the human rights violations. But to me, the worst is not in the telling; the worst or the best is in what happens after the truth is told by the survivors of that war. Will the rebels as well as the soldiers then seek forgiveness or will they continue to dispute the facts of their own past?

After all the traumatic telling of these sad stories, will someone help those who began the war and those who enjoyed destroying admit their crimes against their own country so that the Liberian people will come to grips with the truth of this horrific evil, so that healing in our nation will begin? Will the perpetrators of the violence then accept responsibility for the human rights violations, the hacking down of innocent civilians, the massacres of whole families, the burning down of whole towns and villages, the raping of women and children, the forceful enlisting of young boys and girls as child soldiers and sex slaves, and thereby seek forgiveness so that the healing that we need so much will begin or will they continue to claim, like Charles Taylor, that they did nothing wrong in ordering the destruction of our nation? Will the government after all of this set aside time for the real reconciliation of our nation?

Or will their supporters continue to cry out to God to punish those whose rights were violated or will we as a nation begin to heal? Will we learn to face the truth about what has happened to us as a people? Or will Charles Taylor continue to claim that he has done nothing wrong to Sierra Leoneans even as he had done to Liberians?

These questions should be answered by every Liberian because the effects of the war can never be calculated by any commission unless we as a people have answered these pertinent questions. What happened to Liberia can happen over and over to many more African countries and what happened to Liberia can happen to any nation in the world. War is not a monopoly of any one nation. This is why we are watching around the world, watching what goes on in the Hague and in Liberia.

If those who cause wars to destroy ordinary people’s lives are left to continue to wage more wars on innocent people, the world cannot expect to have peace. Charles Taylor is back in court again after postponing his own trial for more than six months. Liberians are telling their horrible stories of rape, torture, massacres, and devastation in a city so fragile, those who are the religious storehouse of the city have resulted to twisting the arm of God. But God is not asleep. It is Liberia and Liberians that continue to sleep.

The stories out of the hearings are beginning to shock those who have no reason to be shocked. After all, were we not there to see what these victims are talking about? Is it a wonder that those we glorify today may have been the ones who killed our families? But there is healing and reconciliation even in this gruesome story, but only if these stories are told. But that healing will come only when those who have committed the evil quit running and admit they were wrong. This admission will be the beginning of healing, and when we are healed, the rebuilding of Liberia will truly begin. Until then, we are only digging into the dirt like a hen who discovers its mother’s bones after a long time scratching into the earth. We need healing just like a drought land needs rain. So, let the telling of our stories continue. Congratulations to the brave who are able to tell even after so long a wait.

May Liberia live forever, and may the souls of those we will remember rest in peace.

In The Ruined City: A Poem for Monrovia

by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley (from The River is Rising)

In The Ruined City, the water flaps lightly
against the beach at night.
It is August, after too many years,
the rain still pours down like stones.
The Atlantic always knows when to go to sleep,
but all the girls roam dark nights
and men have forgotten they are still men.

Monrovia has lost its name.

The ocean roars like wild fire.
It roars like a hungry lion at dawn,
like the whirlwind.
In the ruined city, all the girls
have legs made from plastic weapons,
and the boys pretend it is okay
for the once beautiful girls to walk
around on plastic legs.
There is little time for weeping,

and all the world stands silent.

There are no more trumpets or drums.
The Dorklor dancer who lost his legs
in the war now sits by the road side, waiting.
It is something to lose your legs to a war,
they say, to Charles Taylor’s ugly war,
where the fighter cannot recall why he still fights.

The men have forgotten they used to be men,
and the women sit by the roadside wondering
what has happened to this land.
If those outside of here do not come,
Liberia will drown in this rain.
Outside my window, the rain taps hard
in Old Road Sinkor, for my homecoming.

The Kenyan Crisis: Another Country Going Down in Smoke: Are You Seeing What I’m Seeing? We Call on the United Nations and the World Leaders to Stop this Craziness Right Now!

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Can We Save the Earth By Ending Senseless Wars and Violence Such As This?

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The rioting, killing, and political upheaval continuing in Kenya was a harder pill to swallow for many of us who love and care about Africa, our mother continent and Africa as a place on this globe. It is easy to hear news of violence as we now are reading about in Kenya when the news comes from already traumatized regions of Africa, from areas that we traditionally associate with long histories of political dictatorship and wars. Sadly for me however, news of violence has come from Liberia, my original homeland for more than two decades, and even though I would hate to hear of new wars and new violence from there, news of widespread rebellion and massacres can be so disturbing even for someone like me.

Since the end of the old year and the beginning of this new year, I have followed the ugly news of the destruction out in Kenya. For a while, I thought to stay low and see if this sad news would go away, to see if the fires would be put out, to see if the killings would stop, to see if the supposedly elected President would call for calm and actually be heard. The fact that an election was held and the one man, the incumbent supposedly won against his challenger, and therefore, the challenger decided to protest in such a way is a sad thing. But we do not know the whole story. I do not care about the whole story if that story involves the senseless killing of innocent fleeing refugees by supporters of the one who was supposedly cheated, if these people, having fled for protection in a church or in their homes, were burnt up. This is a sad thing for the world, and we cannot just continue to be silent.

To me the question is not who won or who lost the election. It never is. The question is how can supporters of the challenger go on the loose to kill so many hundreds of people, to burn down homes and a church with innocent refugees in hiding, to declare that unless their candidate wins the election, there will be no peace? How can such violence we are now seeing translate into peace and democracy for the future of the country? And how can a President who has supposedly won the election also stand his ground as his country is destroyed?

Should I be surprised or not? Maybe not. That happened in my own country over and over before and during the Liberian civil war. This is Africa and this is African politics as usual, but can the world afford losing Kenya too? Can we continue to say “this is Africa?” Maybe not, I’d say.

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New York Times Photos

Looking at some of the images from the New York Times below, it is hard to believe that such a beautiful country, one of the most stable, most economically viable in the East African region, and to know that such a peaceful people as Kenyans have been for decades can come to this.

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This sort of violence defies reason and such careless killing of innocent people by the mob and supporters reminds me of my own country, Liberia, where Charles Taylor supposedly came to rescue innocent Liberians from the tyrant dictator, Samuel K. Doe, and in rescuing us, about half a million of our people were killed, our entire country destroyed, and about a million Liberians were displaced and sent into refugee camps and into foreign lands.

Will we ever learn that politicians will not save Africa or the world from our problems and will we ever learn that wars do not solve any of the world’s problems? Poetry for peace is calling on the world as many human rights organizations, peace loving people, scholars, and the Kenyan people who love Africa are doing today. We cannot continue to allow power hungry people around the world to destroy innocent people, and we cannot bear to see such a beautiful country as Kenya, such beautiful people as Kenyans continue to be massacred day after day while we go about our daily lives. Already, there are enough countries at war in Africa and there are sufficient countries at war in the world.

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I will conclude my words on this blog on Kenya with the words of the great Nigerian poet, John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo, one of my favorite poets, one who influenced me for many years as a student of his work and as one who aspires to his beautiful poetics. His poem, which is as old as I can remember was written about his own country, the Nigerian civil war of the 1960s, but it has relevance today because it is a timeless poem, and can strike the heart of anyone, whether the question is about warfare or about the kind of violence we are hearing about today. Read the poem, will you, and join me in decrying this ugly turn of events in Kenya. And do not join the journalists and political discussants who are already making this uprising a “tribal” war. Every time some crazy people begin to express their political opposition through violence or begin to kill innocent people in Africa or begin wars, others outside of Africa are quick to name this sort of human rights violation as a “tribal conflict.” This violence needs to end. We cannot afford to lose Kenya. We cannot afford another war in Africa. We cannot afford another war in our world.

THE CASUALTIES

by John Pepper Clark- Bekederemo

The casualties are not only those who are dead;

They are well out of it.

The casualties are not only those who are wounded,

Though they await burial by installment

The casualties are not only those who have lost

Person or property, hard as it is

To grope for a touch that some

May not know is not there

The casualties are not only those led away by night;

The cell is a cruel place, sometimes a heaven,

No where as absolute as the grave

The casualties are not only those who started

A fire and now cannot put to out. Thousands

Are burning that had no say in the matter.

The casualties are not only those who escaping

The shattered shell become prisoners in

A fortress of falling walls.

The casualties are many, and a good number well

Outside the scene of ravage and wreck;

They are the emissaries of rift,

So smug in smoke-room they haunt abroad,

They are wandering minstrels who, beating on

The drum of human heart, draw the world

Into a dance with rites it does not know

The drum overwhelm the guns…

Caught in the clash of counter claims and charges

When not in the niche others have left,

We fall.

All casualties of war,

Because we cannot hear others speak,

Because eyes have ceased to see the face from the crowd,

Because whether we know or

Do not know the extent of wrong on all sides,

We are characters now other than before

The war began, the stay- at- home unsettled

By taxes and rumor, the looter for office

And wares, fearful everyday the owners may return,

We are all casualties,

All sagging as are

The case celebrated for kwashiorkor,

The unforeseen camp-follower of not just our war.

 

 

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We cannot afford to be quiet. We must end the wars around the world today. Thank you for your patience.

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HAPPY NEW YEAR 2008: OPEN YOUR EYES AND SEE YOUR BLESSINGS!

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So 2008 is already here with us! Well, let me bless you just the way my old Bai (Grandfather) Jabbeh and Bai Hney used to bless me when I was a little girl or like the elders would bless us when we needed blessings as always. Let your feet be light and your days be filled with so much laughter and cause for true laughter. When you laugh, let it be genuine and when you speak, let your language be filled with hope. Remember, entering a new year is like entering a new place. The year is still clean and fresh, unscathed by all the undone things. Of course, our old worries and our old needs have followed us into the new year, but hey, look at the new great things that will come to help lighten the burden you may have brought along from the old year. May we all see new mercies from God and may our dreams come so true they become unbelievable achievements.

As for me, my one resolution is that I walk in grace each step of the way. It is only by God’s grace that my imperfections become useful because in myself, I am not much of anything. My good and my bad on two scales will amount mostly to my bad. But in the light of God’s grace, I can look much better than I am.

As I finish, I’d like to conclude my first blog of the new year on a youtube video I discovered in my wanderings. It is a lovely performance by a very wonderful Camaroonian musician, Fru Atanga, performing his instrument, singing “Bue Wani” (Open Your Eyes). This is the sort of art that is a mix of poetry, history, and music even with the youtube video clip itself being a drama. This to me is a good way to begin the year. The performance is in itself a historical and educational piece as the history of a continent is told through the voice of hope. You see, Africans have every reason to cry and to mourn for the injustices we have suffered over the centuries, but as one year ends and another begins, there is reason to listen to such a performance. There is hope, I tell you, despite the gloomy pictures of this weeks violence from East Africa to West, from South to North.

There is hope that the criminals who cause wars and violence around the world will be stopped, that the genocide that is destroying whole generations in Darfur will be brought to an end, that the fighting in the Congo will end, that the violence and wars in Pakistan, in Iraq, in the Ivory Coast, etc. will come to an end in 2008, that Charles Taylor, the war criminal that destroyed Liberia and caused tens of thousands to be killed in Sierra Leone and Liberia will finally stand trail and be brought to justice, that Liberians will for once have the courage of standing up to Taylor and his supporters by bringing him to trial even for the human rights violations he perpetrated on our people, and that those who support wars around the world with their money and powers will for once take pity on the world and stop funding wars or supporting wars. It is my hope that Liberians will continue to recover from those terrible fourteen years of war. Yes, 2008 is another year of hope and of good things to come.

There is hope as Fru Atanga declares, “There is a place for you in the future…. Africa.” let me add that that future has arrived in 2008.

Have a Happy New Year and enjoy Fru Atanga. OPEN YOUR EYES so you see the blessings of the new year.

HAPPY NEW YEAR

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Fru Atanga

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