One cold winter morning in an unimposing rowhouse in East Baltimore, poet T.P. Luce sits on a tattered, money-green leather couch, trying to school a reporter on what is. The 40-year-old father of two is laying out the subject of his new book, thaBloc: words, photographs and baltimore city in black, white and gray Ñ but the subject is really just outside his window. Books and papers surround him in his otherwise sparse living room, indicating that the poet/photographer, who makes a good living as a network engineer, considers his words to be among his most prized possessions.
Luce, a New Orleans native, moved to Baltimore in 1990, after being released from the U.S. Army. He settled on Ramona Avenue in East Baltimore because it reminded him of his hometown, and seemed like a nice, affordable place to live. Soon after moving, he began taking pictures of his neighbors, using the expertise he gained studying photography at New York University in the Õ80s to craft a Òphoto narrativeÓ of his new neighborhood. But it wouldnÕt take long for life and art to meet.
In 1996, children who lived on LuceÕs block broke into his home and stole a Nintendo from his son. One of these kids, a boy everyone called Pookie, had been to LuceÕs house before to play. At the time, Luce had warned his son Django, now 14, about Pookie, who would eventually appear in a photograph in thaBloc Ñ looking more like an impish angel than a thief.
ÒI told my son that while I buy him things that he needs, like clothing, food, and toys, Pookie has nothing,Ó Luce recalls. ÒAnd thatÕs what Pookie has to look forward to.Ó
But when Luce confronted the kids who had broken into his house, including Pookie, they were more upset that they got caught than remorseful about having stolen. This, Luce says, made him realize that there was more to the story of his block than his camera alone could capture, and it needed to be told in words as well as pictures, because Òlife on the block is more than meets the eye.Ó
So what began with a few clicks of a shutter evolved into thaBloc, a mixed-media narrative that includes poetry, photography, and documentary text, all meant to shine a light on the way of life for people on his block Ñ a way of life which can feel Òlonely, abandoned, segregated, poor, and without sanctuary,Ó Luce says. But Luce also had a second aim: to expose what he says are the misconceptions that people buy into about life on the block.
Luce took his compilation of photography and text to a small Baltimore publishing house, Obie Joe Media, in December 2003. The book was published last August, and Luce said he has sold 500 copies.
In thaBloc, the lives of LuceÕs neighbors and their family members are so close that you feel you could touch them. You see people just living their lives Ñ three young boys playing together, a young father holding his baby, a man shooting craps on his porch. And Luce depicts them with vivid images and verse that captures the block at its most poppinÕ.
But his photos show his subjectsÕ vulnerability, too Ñ like the images of boys, barely men, brandishing guns, and younger girls posing like femmes fatales. Such pictures, especially of children, are enough to make you wonder if living on this block is like advancing the aging process Ñ turning kids into grown-ups before their time.
ÒChildren run the corners/ whole on the outside/ but premature, half grown on the inside,Ó Luce writes in the bookÕs introductory poem, also titled ÒthaBloc.Ó
But Luce thinks that society makes assumptions about people here and on other blocks like it, without knowing what goes on, and why. He calls this set of ideas a Òdominant culture sensibility,Ó which he defines as being Òclosely aligned with the suburban ideal.
ÒWe are told these things in many different ways,Ó Luce says. ÒFor example, right now one of the ideals to aspire to in dominant culture is being a member of a nuclear family. And in the dominant culture, people believe things about what constitutes a good life Ñ like having a house in the suburbs, two cars, good schools for your children. É But this ideal affects people on the block, in the sense that when bad things happen there, people in the dominant culture turn their noses up at people who live on the block. And the reason they do that is because people on the block are non-members of the dominant culture ideal.
ÒSo, thaBloc is about connecting the dots between the CliffÕs Notes version of the city block you get in the media, with the real and various stories of people who live on the block,Ó Luce says. ÒThe reality is that all of the people who happen to share a city block cannot be summed up by the media in one word, or one story.Ó
Just one reflection of his neighborhood, he says, can be found in his poem ÒthaBlocÓ: ÒThis is the energy/ that cannot be pinned down/ the elusive energy of the bottom,/ of little hopes, of the ignored.Ó
Likewise, in other poems Ñ such as Òsparrow,Ó which describes young Pookie as a fledgling who canÕt learn to fly because his mother has a broken wing Ñ Luce tries to shed light on why a kid like Pookie might steal a video game: ÒNo longer able to reach her nest/ her chicks cry out an impure song,/ and soon their cries transform/ into what they are,/ a beacon of the preyed.Ó
Meanwhile, LuceÕs poem, Òmylar balloons and teddy bears,Ó satirizes the mediaÕs reaction to deaths in certain neighborhoods. ÒAs the storyÕs told/ it reaffirms the staid moral/ of what happens to you/ when you/ donÕt go to school/ donÕt listen to mama/ or live in the wrong place,Ó Luce writes. Makeshift vigils describe different people, with different lives and different morals, the poet explains, and every time you see Mylar balloons and teddy bears on the side of the street, it doesnÕt mean that the victim died in a drug killing. ÒSoon the noise returns/ and the beat goes unflinchingly on,/ this bloc is safe now/ or so the odds-makers tell us,Ó he writes.
ÒThe staid story that gets told to us by the media is, well, you know, that black people and black kids Ñ especially boys Ñ who live in this part of town, donÕt listen to mama, and skip school, and this becomes their fate,Ó Luce says. ÒBut this idea is devoid of specificity. Cookie-cutter coverage and reaction in the media yields the same as if the same kid in the same neighborhood were dying over and over again, affirming the idea that people who live on the block donÕt deserve specific attention. But when someone dies in the suburbs, you get follow-up stories, and there is a pervasive sense that É how it could have happened must be explained thoroughly.Ó
Still another page of thaBloc depicts LuceÕs step-by-step recipe, in text and photos, for how to roll a blunt, with the caption: ÒRecipe for what the dominant culture believes is the ÔrealÕ problem; aka settling for the cheap shot.Ó
Here, Luce emphasizes his dogged rejection of one of BaltimoreÕs most pervasive media messages: The Believe campaign.
ÒThe Believe campaign is an anti-drug campaign, so I mock it. I showed a recipe for how to make drugs,Ó he says, Òand the drug that I chose was marijuana because itÕs so prevalent. The cheap shot is trying to convince you that something that isnÕt the problem is the problem. Drugs are not the problem.
ÒWhen I attend the neighborhood association [meetings], people say all the time that if everyone would keep our neighborhood clean, keep our porch lights on, and call the police, everything would be fine. But even if every porch light were on, on blocks like these, people would still lack resources and would be pressed against the wall to get what they need. And thatÕs the bridge of understanding IÕm trying to convey in thaBloc Ñ that police are ill-equipped to deal with broken families. And [when kids] have a lack of guidance and a lack of a provider, it becomes Lord of the Flies.Ó
Growing up, LuceÕs own very famous provider was jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis Jr. T.P. Luce is a nom de plume; the poetÕs real name is Ellis Marsalis III, sibling to famous brothers Branford, Wynton and Jason. Yet as the author of thaBloc, he has boasted no particular parental rights or privileges. In fact, he has used the name Luce so that readers will focus on the message that he is trying to get across Ñ that he is a resident of this block, no different from anyone else. And that means something.
His familial connection does add depth to his metaphorical family on his block, he adds. ÒThereÕs a certain intensity my brothers and I have at certain times,Ó he says of his five siblings. ÒIÕve come to believe thatÕs not common. When we get together, weÕre like a RubikÕs cube Ñ different sides, different colors, but connected.Ó
And what do members of his other family Ñ people on his block Ñ think of thaBloc? ÒPeople who have seen it have liked it,Ó he says. ÒIÕve sold between six and 10 copies right on my block.Ó
But there has been one dissenter, who appears to fear that people might view her through the usual media stereotypes, the ones Luce wrote thaBloc to counteract. Her response was: ÒYou can write whatever you want, as long as IÕm not in it.Ó
- Image © Ellis Marsalis III from thaBLOC
- "Children run the corners/ whole on the outside/ but premature, half grown on the inside," Luce writes in LABLOC's introductory poem.