Today, May 9, 2016, is Kirk Washington Jr. Day in Minneapolis. Today is his 42nd birthday. There is an event at the Capri theater this evening. There is a gofundme site to continue his work and support his wife and daughters. How else can we celebrate? I suggest going to the core with someone. Maybe it is someone you just met, someone you work with, someone you’ve known all your life. Skip the niceties, or move beyond them quickly, and move to the heart, using any communication medium at your disposal, — to find out how that person is living on the planet.
Because that is what Kirk did, and it is why people who just met him, who worked with him a few months, and those lucky enough to be connected to him for a life time feel such a deep connection to this man who left this realm in April.
I met Kirk in the fall of 2015 when he entered my classroom. Disappointment at the sight of me was written on his face. He sat in the back most corner seat, turning his attention away from the white woman at the front who had the audacity to think she could teach about race, and toward the other students.At the middle of the second session however, after the break, he moved up to the first row — where I could clearly see his eyes drift closed if I turned down the light for video. When he got up to leave he shook my hand and said “Thank you. I like what you are doing here, Anne.”
The class was filled with people well beyond 18-21, with intense life stories and strong personalities. Tears and anger were not uncommon. But love developed, in large part due to Kirk, who was not afraid to get collectively intimate. He would say “Love you all” as he left the room. The first time he did it I felt a perceptible adjustment in the room. Love? Well, yes!
Kirk broke through the atomization that is college these days, especially at commuter institutions. His interactions were intense, as if to say, we have precious work to do, lets not waste time. He got angry when conversation moved to a shallow realm. He took a young student who was skeptical, under his wing, encouraging him to speak his doubts. He was in LA (or San Francisco?) on the day of a group presentation so we skyped him in: Kirk, larger than life, sipping coffee, studying a menu, ordering a meal, and riffing on the New Jim Crow with his group.
The last day of the semester I invited the class to my home. The agenda was to share race autobiographies. Although every classmate had a beautiful and profound statement to make, there was a collective decision made half way through, that Kirk should be the last to speak.
Group, choreographing its own final moments together.
I saw Kirk a couple weeks before he died, when he read a poem at the Loft Literary Center — words that seared and soared. Afterward I introduced him to my husband David — also born on May 9. He asked if it was OK if we hugged. We planned to have coffee in the next weeks.
May 9 is a big day in my life. In addition to Kirk and Dave, it’s my grandmother’s birthday. She would be 125 today. When I was little she used to take me aside and say “who loves you the most?” and I was supposed to answer “Grandma.” In truth, our relationship was not close. She lived to be 99 1/2. The only time I remember sharing real intimacy with her is when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and I was her caregiver for a few days while my parents moved her. She was agitated and scared. I decided to draw her, to see if that would calm her down. I have no drawing skills, but the process of sitting quietly at her feet for several hours, talking admiringly about her face as I penciled it, was just the right medicine.
Thinking about love and art. Hoarding it. Sharing it. Making connections that are real. Happy Kirk Washington Jr. Day to you