I remember my first day of teaching at Ilé Oxumaré in Salvador, Bahia. I was very nervous, but the words of the Ogã, one of the Candomblé community leaders in charge of education and social justice, helped me keep cool: “Não fui eu quem te escolhou, lembre disto!” My first experience in a classroom was not one that I had applied for–it happened when the Ogã told me his own story, when the message that he must lead the community’s work with Afro-Brazilian youth was carried to him at a moment of transition in his life.
I took the bus to Avenida Vasco da Gama and got off at the passarela, the pedestrian bridge that links the commercial side of the avenue to the residential side, as the Perinni came into sight. I had my boombox with me and a few CD’s. I thought we would discuss music and language… and then get into the writing exercises. This was a creative non-fiction writing course in Portuguese that I simply called “Redação,” a technical word I didn’t particularly like because it felt mechanical to my Peter Elbow trained ears, but I learned that “Composição” was thought of as musical composition, not writing one’s story. So I thought it would be interesting to explore those terms with the group of thirty-five students, some from the religious community and some coming from marginalized communities along the city periphery.
As I climbed up the steep hill, the feeling of the air and space changed. Now looking from above, with one of Salvador’s busiest avenues below, you could feel the Ilé’s protective laters cutting out the traffic noise and, high up in the hill, re-imagine yourself. There were small homes where members of the community lived, sacred trees, and small cabins where the Orixás lived and were honored. As I walked up hundreds of stairs, I remember the image of the white walls of the terreiro (the portuguese word used to refer to the Ilés, which number in the thousands in Bahia) cast against a brilliant blue sky. And, as I reached the last group of stairs, I remember the mariwó shifting and resettling in the wind.
This was 2002, thirteen years before I would return to Ilé Oxumaré to welcome the royal family of Oyó in 2015, though I would never have imagined it. That grand welcoming at the end of my work in Bahia, was the beginning of a new period. It’s fitting that the door closing and opening–all in the context of this reception–happened at Ilé Oxumaré at that part of the hill that was settled according to language: the Yoruba-speaking groups, the Kikongo, Makongo, and Bakongo language groups.
I don’t think I realized it in 2002, but I was using Kamau Brathwaite’s Nation Language to teach the writing course. I was using Nation Language as a teaching theory, approach, and hands-on practice rooted in Brathwaite’s poetic system. I was teaching within the context of Brathwaite’s call for building around orality while elevating so-called “dialects” to the status of language.
What I realize while writing these posts is that there is a long story behind a chapter that I wrote with several students in the Bahamas. It’s a story that I need to return to from several angles, points, and perspectives. It’s also a story that unites a series of teaching approaches — in Bahia, in Havana, New York City, Seville, Massachusetts, Nassau, back to Bahia — all of which need to be assembled. What is endlessly helpful is seeing oral traditions, philosophies, and aesthetic continuities from the places where the teaching took place… seeing the aesthetic principles…
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