In a recent visit with the professor, he gave these words: “You never think about the time you’ve wasted until you have no more time to waste.” Watchful words from a master teacher whose life, as Bernice Green’s reprinted essay shows, has not been wasted at all.
There will be a tribute to the professor Saturday November 8th at Medgar Evers College (See announcement on this page.)
We expected our first interview with Professor William Mackey, Jr. to last 45 minutes, centering around the erudite history scholar’s take on the differences – if any – between storytelling and the study of history. A few minutes into our session, Professor Mackey detoured into a What-Time-Is-It reality check (for our benefit) with lessons in Mackey’s Basic Economics, Basic Math and Social Studies. It’s the same thing he does for the community with his free lectures Thursday evenings in the basement of 850 St. Marks Avenue in Brooklyn.
Four hours passed, and we had not even cracked the surface in our planned exploration of the man and his missions.
See, when you’re traveling with Professor Mackey, there’s no telling what you will find, who you will meet or how long the journey will take.
On the way, you pick up some fundamental lessons in Black survival for an African future. It’s part of a life course Mackey believes everyone in the Village has prerequisites for, from birth. It’s a course the professor still takes himself.
Mackey has journeyed to a number of worlds without ever leaving the village. In the community he is known for his scholarship and his skills as an educator.
In the literary world he is respected for his writings, and, his scholarship: He is a linguist; five languages, but he speaks “only Ebonics in public.” He has an assortment of degrees; one is in the science of structural engineering.
In a nationwide poll in the 70’s he was voted one of the top ten photojournalists in the world. Some of his poignant images of the Black experience appear in the critically acclaimed “Eye of Conscience,” a tribute to these renowned photographers. A musicologist whose record library includes Big Band to Beethoven; Mozart to Miles, Mackey can sing, too. He founded –are you ready?– “The Fernandina Florida Gospelaires” and performed lead. His tenor solos rocked Jacksonville, Florida’s famous Bethel Baptist Institutional Church where he created its popular glee club. Music was a staple -along with poetry, drama, jazz and good eats — of Les Deux Megots, the cafe he owned on East 7th Street in Greenwich Village during the Beat Generation era. Mackey’s cozy spaces — he owned several of them –were frequented by artists, poets, dancers and Off- Broadway and out-of-work actors and actresses. Harold Cruse managed Megots for him and James Baldwin, Moses Gunn, Robert Earl Jones-father of James, Frances Foster, Robert Hooks, Graham Brown, Ted Jones and many other greats, hung out and performed there. Amiri Baraka was a regular and recited his poetry over what is now called open mic.
Mackey is a contributing editor to the Encyclopedia of Black America (the Negro Almanac) and to the Pictorial History of Black America, in which some of his photographs appear. His incisive introduction to Barnes & Noble’s 1995 edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a first. The book has been in print since 1852 and this is the first time an African -American has written a critical analysis of the work.
You can find Mackey’s loving tribute to Langston Hughes on this year’s Literary Desk Calendar. The 1998 Literary Calendar will feature Mackey’s panegyric to Baldwin.
(Mackey has never gotten over the death of his good friend. And he is trying to come to terms with the recent passing of the great Dr. Edward Scobie. Mackey will write about Scobie’s contributions.)
Twice a week, on average, Mackey walks from Crown Heights across the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan. On some days he stops in lower Manhattan to teach at DC 37. Courses include: the History of Black Music; Race, Ethnocentricity and Linguistics; African History and Culture. On other days he travels past Wall Street on foot another 40 blocks or so, uptown, to Empire State College. There, he unscrambles minds on issues pertaining to world history, U.S. Labor and Black History. For Mackey, 77, life truly is about journeys: preparing for them, having the right mindset for them, starting them and completing them. He’s very concerned that too many people do not know how to get to first base. Therein lies the key to his personal mission: “to open up minds.”
“I’m here to show you how to think I’m not here to just teach,” he tells his “family” of students in his “Correcting the MisEducation Series” class at 850. But educate he does with refreshingly honest and irreverent diagnoses of an unwell world “gone crazy”. This evening, Mackey is discoursing on “The Role of Race and Ethnocentrism in Cultural Linguistics (Speaking in Tongues)”. He is in control, leading his discussion like a conductor – music or train. Yet the griot-patriarch seeks guidance, too: to convey his message and carry his followers into various worlds of knowledge.
Before each Thursday class, he meditates alone in his apartment tower surrounded by spectacular pyramids of books, cassettes and audiotapes. Buried under one heap is an upright, still in tune, piano waiting for Mackey to play it again. The books are so pristine, so new-looking you wonder if Mackey simply inhales the knowledge without touching the pages. And more books in the dining room, on the windowsill, in Barnes & Noble shopping bags, in every inch of space except a couple of necessary paths. And still more books: all stamped carefully with the Mackey imprimatur and waiting for their place on the shelves of a library Mackey will build in Georgia as a memorial to his grandmother, Harriet Weston.
Mackey takes the results of his reflections downstairs to his Mack-free classes. These are Multi-Afrikan Culturally Kemetic free classes where Mackey’s occasional socially incorrect locutions are in a comfort zone with his readings from word-and-thought-masters he respects, including Dr. John Henrik Clarke, Malcolm X, Howard Zinn, Shakespeare, Mrs. Weston. As many as 35 students on various Thursdays are held captive by the professor’s iconoclastic humor, down-home wit, idol-smashing curveballs. Laughter drowns the wooshing noises of the washers and dryers across from the community room. Mackey is shooting holes in the media’s main “Story- of-the-Week”, analyzing it from a fact perspective. He draws parallels between the Ollie Northcrack thing and England’s Opium Wars coverups. He interweaves history with real- world happenings, and makes it sound like poetry. He is a consummate storyteller, and he draws us in. He inspires us to make mental notes to checkout the Britannicas on our bookshelves, and get into this global history, a feat which eluded our past so-called educators. We are learning. “The education system has a long history of dehumanizing people,” Mackey says. “The truth is not being put out there. It’s a continuing struggle trying to steer away from misdirection and mis-education. It’s so easy to delude ourselves into thinking that what we are being told is what really is. Positive insanity is the only rational outlet. I believe we can do it ourselves, and learn everything we need to know right in the village. It’s not a new way of thinking. But I would never tell you what to think. I will advise you not to compartmentalize anything. Everything ties in. Knowledge is all around, if you use all your senses, you’ll find it. ”
A young SUNY college student on winter break is listening to Professor Mackey with cautious attention. The class is a release from the madness on her upstate campus where white students have smeared racist graffiti on the walls and dormitory doors. The following week, the young woman brings her mother to meet Mackey. The mother expresses her gratefulness, informing him that her daughter is returning to school with a new resolve and some tangibles -newspaper clips, tapes and book lists from Mackey’s class to share with the other Black students. “My daughter says she met the smartest people here in your class.” Mackey’s mindful assistant professor Gloria Walker overhears, and promises to ask Mackey if he would establish workshops for young people.
Class readings are pulled from the newspapers each week, and distributed to each participant. Before the sessions’ end, Beverly provides the class with impactful information on happenings outside and within the village. This night, she announces the existence of job openings in the transit system. Mackey immediately calls on transit employee R. to give a summation or “translation” of “the real deal. R. strides up in full uniform and offers a read-between-the-lines commentary. He’s brilliant, in his way. Yet T-Bear a truly sweet man, interrupts. “Are you talkin’ Ebonics, man?” Elder Mackey cuts a laser eye in T-Bear’s direction. The class is heedful. T-Bear downshifts. R. continues without a missed beat. We’re all learning.
Mackey believes everyone in the village is special. It’s a sentiment his maternal grandma bestowed upon him. The elder Harriet (Sibley) Weston, born enslaved in 1854, decided she would raise her grandson because he was “a special child.” In those days, he says, children didn’t question their mothers. Didn’t matter whether the mother was grown, a teacher and had good sense. Which aptly describes Mrs. Blanche Mackey when her mother took her two-year-old son from Jacksonville, Fla., to raise on her 50-acre farm in the Black village of Scarlett, in Camden County, Georgia. Bill learned the sorts of pastoral things that illumine life and carries one through it. Under his grandmother’s conscious eye: he learned how to grow things: corn, rice, yams… Just as she grew him and taught him the value of simplicity and sustenance in a complicated and unsustaining world. (Mackey’s family never sold their land in the South.)
Mackey read every book there was to read in Scarlett, and when he ran out of books (most rural Black schools were like the two room dwelling Mackey attended — 10 years behind without a library to speak of, he would pick from the ground books discarded as trash by less-poor white schools. (The same way he picks up pennies dropped from worn pockets and loose purses every now and then.) Young Mackey treasured these finds. He would dust them off and store their precious shards of knowledge in his photographic memory.
When he completed the highest grade – (because of Jim Crow, back in the 20’s and 30’s in the South, the highest grade a Black child could reach was the 6th or 8th grade, if you were lucky) Bill Mackey, by then a teenage bibliophile, returned to his parent’s home in the big city of Jacksonville to continue his education. Summers he spent in Scarlett. It was during one of those vacations that, Bill, at age 14, taught his grandmother to read and to write. Mrs. Weston was in her 90’s.
Back then, people “had more pride, more dignity and a sense of history,” he told a reporter in 1985. “They maintained a respect for education that was absolutely awesome.” But racism has always been on a head-on collision course with the ancestors’ love for education and their children’s pursuit of it. In one of the nation’s largest cities, Black students had no access to the main library in the 30’s. And Bill had run out of books to read in the smaller, poorer Black libraries. In 1936, Mrs. Clara White, an ombudsman for the Black community, a friend of Mary McLeod Bethune and one of Jacksonville’s first Black social workers, spearheaded a campaign to open the city’s main library to Black children. Black people who lived in towns like Columbus, Ga.– Dr. John Henrik Clarke’s hometown, — had to go in through the back door. “A library card to us,” says Mackey, “was like a credit card, a passport, that’s how valuable it was then.”
Mrs. White, Blanche Mackey and other sympathizers and activists went the distance and won a small victory: Mackey was able to visit the library on Thursdays between 12 noon and 3pm. Only on Thursdays.
To this day, the professor believes that “one chapter, paragraph or sentence can make a book worthwhile.” And the value of Mackey’s own literary life work will never be underestimated either. It is a treasure entitled, Down Home: Return to the Georgia Backwoods. This 550-page study of Black life in the lower coastal Carolinas, Georgia and Florida is both a voluminous work of research culled from 3,000 hours of interviews and 6,000 photographs that combine with his own remembrances. It venerates the land tilled and hoed by the ancestors’ hands and shows how “we have taken the garbage and refuse of Western society (and mixed it with the ancestors’ sweat and blood –this writer’s comment) and made it art.”
Yet, Mackey is very much concerned about the waste that weighs some of us down. The wasting of minds, the wasting of time.
We were nervous the morning of the scheduled first interview. Twenty minutes late and fumbled with the audio tape “This stuff oughtta been done on the way here,” he barks. “And now you sittin’ here doin yaw preliminary preliminaries. Thank God, we didn’t decide to take over the country this morning.”
After the interview, Mackey sets out to walk us to the IND station at the Kingston Throop stop. After all, he has to pickup his copy of The New York Slimes, as he calls it — he reads it everyday! — and The Daily Challenge. He’s grumbling about how he’s lost pennies on account of us. Seems folks drop them on their way to work in the morning. And don’t place any value in them–enough to stop and pick them up. He’s concerned about us keeping warm. We enter the subway at the Uptown side to meet the train that will take us one stop to Utica. There we can get the express running downtown to our stop. This is Mackey’s idea.
In the underground, we are introduced to regal Sofronia, the token booth collector, who dispenses the coins as deftly as she offers information on upcoming photo and fine arts exhibitions throughout Brooklyn and New York. We are learning.
Mackey says he will be seeing us soon.
As we enter the train, we realize we have not even reached first base in our talks with Mackey. He is deep and there is so much. Two lecture sessions and one-half dozen ego-smashing phone calls later, we’re still trying to pass some kind of course. But we’re learning some basic lessons in survival: the importance of “going home” to detoxify the mind and unlearn the culture-crushing software that has been programmed in us. We also have rediscovered the value of a found penny. “It’s a 100% profit,” says Mackey. “Absolutely! – A found penny is a 100% profit!” Just like the burnished seeds of wisdom Mackey’s students are amassing in those free Thurs. day night lectures. We’re learning. Walking through histories. Listening. Absorbing. Catching up. Collecting sense. “‘It’s about time!” Mackey would say.