This is the type of place that forced you to be an artist. It was like melting down the Harlem Renaissance and New Orleans jazz, and tucking that bronze brick in a rundown alley, an unknown shadow to the Fox Theatre. But there was no doubting this place was special. It had an aura, and that aura could influence the mind of anyone within the sound scope of the music. The rhythms vibrated through the sidewalk, recalibrating how you walked. Your pace was now in 4/4 time, mimicking the music, hips swaying to the bassline. It was as if you could not break the plane into the building unless you had a certain swagger. It was as if the bouncer would not let you in unless he could smell the paint or ink staining your hands, or see the residual flash of a camera in your eyes, or hear the faint hum of an instrument or song emanating from your body. It was my first time at the Apache Night Café, and I can already tell that this was where Atlanta’s artists breathed.
I remember having to rip through a wall of smoke to get through the doorway. “Eyes wide open,” my best friend warned, wagging his short dreads at me, “so you don’t catch the cover charge desk in your belly and get thrown back out into those streets.” Josh had been there plenty of times, with his new friends, but it was my first summer back home after starting college so he knew he had to educate me. He already looked the part of an artist, his vibrant dashiki bold against his dark skin, only missing the strap of his Nikon snug around his neck. The bouncer sat behind the desk, old but powerful, like he was seated at a table in Valhalla, a cigarette perched precariously on his lips. The silver cash box propped up his elbow as he took my license and the ten dollar bill from my hand. His touch was gentle and careful. A quick scan made him take my wrist and mark it with a thick ‘X’ from a felt tip pen. There was just enough space to slide between the desk and the back corner of the stage to get to where the floor finally opened up and I could breathe.
On my right was a bar, with what little light there was, blocked by the people leaned all the way over the countertop to yell their poisons into the bartender’s ear. To the left was a large dance floor, half-covered by a barely raised stage, where a Black punk band shook the building, threatening to rock off the roof. It could hardly hold them in so it clung desperately to the high halls, covered in Black Modernist art, each painting punctuated by orange wall lamps, giving the room its dark fiery glow. The rest of the dance floor was jam-packed with Black bodies grooving in a way punk music has never seen and never will see outside this building. Three steps at the end of the dance floor carried me, Josh, and one of his new friends, up to a neat, café-like sitting area, peopled by short, black tables lit by fake candles and with backless couches for chairs. Off in the front corner of this night café was a DJ booth, where the DJ and the band’s sound engineer shared too little space, and were way too open to the drunken requests of those few people who were not dancing. That’s where I wanted to be.
I approached the booth, already abandoned by Josh. He had other friends tucked into some corner somewhere. There wasn’t much for me to say, so I leaned my back up against the booth and just listened: listened to the music, listened to the banter between the DJ and the sound engineer, and listened to the people living their lives, Black in Atlanta and flourishing. Josh said this is where Black artists came to network, photogs found models, bands found an audience, painters found a muse, and I found myself so out of place. I was barely an artist. I had not written anything that wasn’t a tired essay for a professor who was tired of reading essays in what felt like years. Novels festered in my laptop like open wounds, untouched for fear of infecting them with someone else’s ideas as I read an unending chain of British comedies and Scottish short stories, by and for White men who would never know me, while I was forced to know them—my degree depended on it.
I barely knew how I got into this place, because all there was for me to do was imagine I was the lead singer of that band, ignoring how much I wasn’t badass and had let my voice go to hell. I was sinking into the floor as the drummer tap, tap, tap, tapped out all the things I had let fall to the wayside, all for chasing an education that wasn’t designed for me. I closed my eyes and thought about how I could dare to be a writer when I spent my entire first year of university reading books by not-Black women and being taught to write by not Black women. It was enough to force me to think that writing was for not-Black women, and I felt like Salvador Dali was melting my face into the heat of the DJ booth, while the floor wrapped around my ankles to pull me in. The only thing saving me was the Blackness of the place.
“How are you drowning in your sorrows when I haven’t even bought you a drink yet?” I opened my eyes to Josh’s smirk near my face.
“Shushhhhh,” I replied, as I mushed his face away from me. I hadn’t even noticed that the band had finished playing during my pity party; stagehands were carrying away their drum set and mixing board.
“Look, this is the best part. This is why I brought you.” He nudged me excitedly, focusing me on the tall, Obsidian woman gliding onto the stage. Her hair was platinum blonde, the striking contrast shaved close to her head. Her full lips ‘ahem’d into the microphone before she let out this immaculate stream of passion of a like that poetry had never experienced.
He toiled and sweated, working the damp ground.
Around him lay the treasures he needed,
All the wilted, dead flowers he weeded.
He lifted the dirt, pound by pound by pound.
The squelch of the mud not the only sound,
Though the moans of muscles went unheeded,
‘Til he saw his prize. He’d finally reached it
And his body recoiled at what he found.
They call him harvester of black bodies.
They call him a traitor of his own kind.
They call him an enemy of their kin.
They judge him, neglecting that their follies
Create the surplus that he had to mine.
Everyone fears the Resurrection Men.
“Damn, it’s like she’s just breathing a whole new world into existence,” I whispered.
“Yeah, doesn’t it just make you wanna be great? Damn, I wish I brought my camera.” I looked into his ardent eyes and nodded. I wanted to be her, so intent and amazing at what I loved. I couldn’t leave that place without wishing I was writing more, developing my art. At school, I was letting the artist in me die, but I stood in that dark building surrounded by Black poets, musicians, photographers, dancers, and I knew, the doors of that great hall were open, eagerly awaiting me.
*As published in Jasper Magazine, Fall 2017