I was digging around in my garden the other day when Mulenga Harangua popped out from behind my garage. There’s no alley back there, and the easement has a fence down the middle of it, so I wondered how he got behind my garage without my dog alerting me.
“Hey, man, how did you get back there?”
“I can’t tell you my secrets, man. I’ve been practicing staying out of sight of the man for decades. I’m here and there, slipping through the shadows. I’m outside the net. I’m a free bird on the back of the wind, like Maya Angelou. She ain’t caged no more. She doesn’t have to sing of freedom. She’s the song of the universe now.”
“Whoa, man, here you go getting all poetic on me.”
“So did Maya Angelou, but I didn’t hear you complaining about her.”
“No, I don’t have any complaints about her. And like you said, she’s out of this mortal cage. Actually she’s a star now.”
I pointed at my wife Diane’s clematis vine with its star-shaped flowers blooming in their glory like a purple Milky Way. “Right now I’m naming that the Star of Maya Angelou memorial.”
“Now that’s what I’m talking about,” Mulenga said. He gazed around my yard. “I see you have a cage over there. Keep Maya’s flowers out of it.”
“I just built that to keep the creatures away from my strawberries. Last year they ate almost my entire crop. Squirrels and birds, I even had a rabbit hanging around for a few weeks snacking in my garden. But this year the people are getting some strawberries. Plus I have more plants. The strawberries just about doubled themselves since last year. They could take over the yard.”
“Yep, they just send out those runners and create more plants.” Mulenga wandered across the yard looking at the area I’d been digging in. “Man, you got a lot of worms crawling around here.”
“I’m amazed. They really seem to be just about everywhere — night crawlers and red worms. When we moved in here 20 years ago, when I dug around I might find a worm once in awhile but they were few and far between. Most of the yard was sand.”
Mulenga picked up a chunk of earth and crumbled it. “You’ve still got some sand, but it’s not too bad.”
“I’m working on it. I talked to this guy named Kido the other day. He’s the adult education coordinator at Keep Growing Detroit. He says that all the worms mean the composting I’ve been doing is working. I’ve been composting pretty much since I got here. Grass clippings, leaves, weeds, I just put them in a pile and let them sit for years until they decompose. Sometimes I wrap kitchen waste in newspaper and dig a hole, just bury it here.
Mulenga laughed and started wiggling his hips and waving his arms around. “I’m doing the worm.”
“You look like something I should stick on a hook and go fishing for something big. Anyhow, Kido says that worms eat up organic material and leave their castings and poop. It’s all good for the plants to grow. Plus they create little channels in the soil for air and water penetration. That’s good too. The worms get what they want, and I get what I want.”
“It wouldn’t hurt to throw a little composted cow manure in there too.”
“I do that sometimes too, just getting the yard together. Sometimes when I’m digging I come across a plastic toy soldier or a cowboy. I even found a toy car once. The people who lived here before me had boys.” I wiped the sweat off my forehead with my hand. “Whoever comes after me is going to get a fertile yard.”
“You got some dirt on your forehead,” Mulenga said. “Are you going blackface? That could get you in trouble like that teacher who got suspended in Monroe.”
“That was a stupid move by the school administrator. History is history — it happened. Sometimes it’s not pretty, but there it is staring you in your black face. At least he didn’t put on the burnt cork and dance around.”
“Ted Danson got in trouble for going blackface once.”
“Yes, he did. But the biggest blackface spectacle of recent years was that Spike Lee movie Bamboozled. He showed how even black entertainers had to go blackface in order to work in minstrel and traveling tent shows. I guess you had to be even blacker than black. When the Metro Times put an image from that movie on the cover back in 2000, I got a letter from a woman who was mortified at the watermelon-eating darkie cartoon. She said she was ashamed of it and took all the newspapers from the stand in her building and threw them away so no one would see it.”
“You can’t hide it,” Mulenga said. “At the very least, bring it out and talk about it. That’s the problem with the Monroe teacher case. The administrator found even talking about it to be wrong. I guess saying anything about race gets a lot of people uptight. Somehow in this supposedly post-racial society you’re not even supposed to mention race.”
“As Malcolm X once said, we ‘been hoodwinked! Bamboozled! Led astray!’ If we can’t talk about race when folks are out there disenfranchising voters, arresting marijuana users, and implementing other policies that primarily affect people of color in a negative way, then it’s just as bad as Jim Crow days. In fact, that whole voter ID thing is as Jim Crow as any Jim Crow law.”
Mulenga squatted and snapped off a stalk of garlic chive. He stuck it in his mouth and seemed to muse over the subject. “That’s why we need to keep doing what we’re doing.”
“Growing food. We need to create new ways of doing things, just change the whole system of how these interactions work.”
“How is that going to change voter ID laws?”
“Nothing in the short term,” Mulenga said, “but this has been going on for a long time, and we need a long-term strategy. Growing food is empowering. It heals people and creates community connections. When you have that, you gain power. And that’s the only way we can change all that is by having our own power, personal, economic, the whole thing. Taking over food production does that.”
“Whoa, man, you’re getting deep,” I said. “I was just trying to get some good eats.” I looked up at the clouds for a moment. When I looked back down, Mulenga was gone. Another of his famous disappearing acts. Then I heard his voice. It seemed to come from the clematis vine entangled in a chicken-wire frame I’d built.
“Don’t be hoodwinked, led astray,” he said. “Be a free bird.”
Led astray? Here I was standing in my own yard, digging in my garden. Nobody’s taking me anywhere.