I moved to Washington in 1970 to attend law school. I had a full scholarship, a stipend, and a free place to live in a private home, with my father's cousin and his wife, they wouldn’t accept any money from me for food or utilities. After some fear that I might not be able to do well enough to maintain my scholarship, I discovered that the hardest thing about law school was getting admitted. I was making good grades, and guys I had thought smarter than me were asking me to join their study groups.
Holy shit! The kid from the projects was actually going to make it. I already had a job offer back home in Philly in a damn good downtown firm. All I had to do was complete school, pass the bar and I was going to be set for life.
By the end of the first semester of my second year I finally worked up the courage to quit. To play percussion and to learn how to live as the artist my soul had been trying to tell me I was. All along there had been disquiet, an unsettled feeling not so much about what I was doing, rather about what I wasn’t doing, how I wasn’t living my life. At twenty-three, even before I discovered the drum, playing skin on skin in the Afro-Cuban style, I knew that even though I was good, even very good, with academics and using words, I was supposed to do something wildly different.
So I moved from my free rent household and rented an apartment, then moved into a group house with some of the most amazing people I have ever known on Foxhall road, in one of Washington's more exclusive neighborhoods to contemplate my future while still attending school.
I can't say there was any one thing that inspired me to make the decision to leave school. But I can tell you that there was one person who made a deep impression on me and who helped guide me in an effortless way to what was the beginning of my journey to myself. No, he wasn't a law professor, although I certainly met several I still recall with fondness and reverence today. He wasn't one of the master drummers I was lucky enough to have instructed me as I began my drum journey.
He was an un-educated gardener who tended the landscaping of fancy houses all around Foxhall Village. He told me once that he couldn't remember if he went past fifth grade and that he thought he had for sure finished third but that fourth was a hazy memory. His language rarely included three syllable words but it contained the vast richness of a life well lived, vistas seen by one who experienced much, and a wisdom born of a lifetime of suffering.
Clifton was a seventy-one year old black man who had lived in Virginia or Washington DC his entire life. He had seen incredible social, cultural, and political change and managed to talk about it while seemingly telling me about flowers, soil and the mysterious ways of white folks. Most importantly, he spoke with a hidden power. I found him amazing for his ability to give understanding to things that were, at least for me, not written down...and to an extent, could not be written down. Even more, he seemed to clearly analyze the world from the context of not only the present, but with an understanding of how what was present had grown from the past, and how it could shape the future.
He did all of this while speaking solely of flowers, bushes, sunlight, rain, pests, the seasons, and God. He would occasionally actually name a name, or use the expression "white folks", but mostly his message was hidden in the open, ringed by the necessities of a customer's request, the needs of the flora, or the time of the year.
I met him in the early spring of 1971, around the middle of second semester of my first year. I was on my way home after class to study and to practice...
"Warm fo’ this time o’ year, ain’t it?" came his bass voice, waking me out of my still bus ride addled trance. I stood there for a moment, not knowing where the voice had come from when, "Now you ain’t from ‘round here, huh? I can tell by the clothes you wear. Where you from?"
"Philadelphia", I answered as my eyes found him rising from his knees behind a thick row of still nude azaleas.
He was very wiry and short, with dark brown skin, white hair and beard. His hands were strong and large compared to his body, which, after hearing his voice, seemed too small to be all there was of him. He slowly ambled his way to the sidewalk and asked if I were a college student. I proudly told him I was in law school.
He said, "Lots of young folks ac’ually goin’ there these days, reminds me o hearin’ bout them boys that ended up gittin’s us folks the right t’ go to white folks’ school!"
I noticed his eyes were tired, weary would be a better description, and yet they weren't angry or resigned eyes that I'd seen on my father and other Black men back in Philadelphia...and most of these men weren't nearly as old as Clifton. It couldn't have been possible that they had as hard a life as he must have. On him weariness seemed regal, mystical; his arthritic body radiated a sense of power and wisdom. The smell of the man, while initially musty from his work, gave way to the olfactory sensation I get when visiting a room full of very old books. We talked of nothing specific that day, yet I felt like I was in a master class of some sort for he seemed like the mythical man on the mountain or an African shaman.
I would hurry back to wherever he was working after class or work after having talked to him two or three times as I felt he was directly addressing my heart and soul with lessons and insights of a master of life. Imbued as I was then with my attempts to understand the hidden behind the known, like the real reasons politicians maintained their stances on the Viet Nam war, human rights, race, and their particular version of what anything labeled ‘American’ should be like. And why I would want to give up a life of privilege to possibly starving as a drummer. He could explain it to me with a discourse on soil erosion, improper nourishment, or unfortunate plant placement. Somehow, I developed a broader perspective on the world, and myself, from these talks.
In the time since, I have met many that have impressed me, given me lessons, and continue to inspire me. I have a friend who, like me, values a good story. In fact we have both determined that a life well lived means that you have many great stories to tell. My friend encourages me to remember the stories I carry and, just as importantly to tell them. He has helped me remember the artist I have always been and to use my life and the stories of it to carry me forward, just as a humble gardener once did with power and insight.
When I asked Clifton what I should do about law school and a seemingly comfortable life or learning all I could about the drum and a life of uncertainty beyond being able to pay that month’s rent he told me a story about planting flowers in the right dirt. When I asked him his thoughts on people of different races living in the same place he told me his ideas on what made a perfect garden. His simple stories showed me a world I had never seen before, a self I had never let live before. And, most importantly, he led me to understanding that it takes a lot of work and good fortune to grow.
Seems to me that we have a link to the African griots and we need to hold them precious. Children of the African diaspora can find them among us here sometimes appearing in the strangest of places and in ordinary guise. They appear to grow before their words, having been born of those words, yet creating and re-creating the world with them. I picture Clifton as he would have been in a former life, playing all the roles the ancient holy men played in the village, giving voice and grounding to all the necessary ritual and ceremonial passages. I listen as each of us tells the many stories that make up our lives; he taught me well.
I watch us all learn to tend to the bushes and flowers of our lives. Waiting for rain and sun, the seasons to change in their patterns, our plants sustained in large part by our tender care and loving attention in an unending cycle. Would that we all be as wise and gifted as Clifton, for he grew beautiful flowers and azaleas; and he told the most amazing tales.