CREATIVE EXPRESSION: WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DARYL GETMAN
EDITORIAL CONTRIBUTION BY LUCINDA DENNEY
“I’m not interested in the person that is not interested in the world. And I do think there’s a connection between art and being interested in the world.” Meet Khary Lazarre-White. He speaks with a conviction that has been forged over years of pursuing things of the world that interest him. Co-founder of The Brotherhood/Sister Sol – a prominent organization in New York City that provides wrap-around services to young people. He is a Yale Law trained attorney. An educator. And he is also a published author with his first novel, Passage, having just been released during this last week of September 2017. Passage tells the story of a young black man navigating the streets of Harlem and Brooklyn in 1993. Among Khary’s many awards and accomplishments, he has been featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show and was awarded Oprah Winfrey’s Angel Network Use Your Life Award.
As Khary walks towards me on this temperate spring afternoon in New York’s Central Park, he projects a sense of intentionality. From his made-to-fit blazer, up to his trademark silvery mane, the man is already persuasive. As we get settled, I enquire as to the motivation of starting The Brotherhood/Sister Sol. “We wanted to be entrepreneurial. We wanted to build it, bring our own staff, our own vision. And we did it here in New York and in Harlem, because of the conditions that continue to exist in cities here; deep issues of violence and incarceration, and lack of opportunity in education. When we started the program, over 2,000 people a year were dying in this city from violent acts…and we felt the need to respond to that,” he says. The collective he is referring to is the early team that includes his long-time friend and co-founder Jason Warwin.
Khary credits his experiences growing up in New York City and his focus on Africana studies for this unique brand of social entrepreneurship. “I’m born and raised in the city…And things that I learnt in New York City allow me to navigate some of the toughest parts of the world because I learned things here growing up about how to navigate. I remember going to tough cities and places, from the African continent, to the Caribbean, to Europe, and people give you your warnings of things to do and not do and I was like, ‘I learnt all that at 8 years old; I’m all good, I’m alright,’” he says.
And where does he draw his inspiration. That sense of purpose. “I was inspired by a lot of people who sought…to work in different spaces. To not be monolithic. An inspiration to me is Paul Robeson. Somebody who had deep expertise in an array of areas: was a man of letters, was an athlete, was an artist, was a social justice maker, was political; that’s the aspiration I have to try to create change. To be an artist. To be an activist. To be somebody who lives life at times differently from what seems to be…the norms of our life today,” Khary adds.
While Khary is confident in being multi-faceted, a general criticism among those who are not is that pursuing various interests betrays a lack of focus. “I’ve been a writer my whole life, that identifies as an artist first and foremost. So it’s not on somebody else’s judgment to judge my desire to be multifaceted and complex. I think that complexity is something that is a positive quality; you know that… something that folks should aspire to more. And then there’s also constantly a struggle to learn…I’m often struck by people who don’t seem to change and evolve. You know, Mohammed Ali has a great quote — that ‘if I’m the same man at 50 that I was at 25, I wasted 25 years of my life.’ And so I always want to learn. There’s so much I don’t know… So, I think the journey for exploration and education and transformation go hand in hand with being multi-faceted, because then you’re searching the world for new opportunities,” he says.
Passage is Khary’s first novel and it has just debuted. “Since I was a child, the written word has been essential to me. Whether it’s been poetry or essays…to be able to use the written word to speak out, to describe, to hopefully inspire, to make situations clear. You know, one of the writers I revere the most is James Baldwin; his ability to use language to make unbelievably complicated situations, unbelievably clear. That’s the kind of language that I’m attracted to,” he says. That said, Khary’s art is not confined to the written word and he views his creative expression more expansively. “Broadly, I think being an artist is being creative. I would say there are parts of my work as a social justice worker, and social entrepreneur that are artistic,” he adds.
The Brotherhood/Sister Sol is in the process of constructing a state of the art building to serve as a sanctuary for the organization’s growing programs. Even in this endeavor, Khary wants the building to reflect artistic thought. “I’ve said to the architect. Themes of our organization are positivity, knowledge, community, and future. I want a building that is youth focused, that makes young people feel they are at home. I want a building that respects Pan-African history and the experience of our young people. That’s artistic. How you design a space…to make young people feel comfortable? How do you design a space that’s based on issues of social justice?”
The vision of designing a space that fosters youth engagement and education sounds interesting and aspirational but how does one actually go about creating it. “Think about what it feels like to walk into a prison? You immediately know you’re in a prison? Yes. If you walk into a military building? You immediately know that? Sure. When you walk into the highest court in most countries around the world… that has soaring ceilings and long steps to walk up to it, they want you to feel intimidated by the judiciary…You walk into a church and you feel the fact that the church is supposed to be a soaring edifice. So, I would argue that you can also have structures that speak to being about social justice, or education, or children. What does it feel like to not create an institution for education that’s about the teachers or the adults or about the basic architecture? But, instead you are walking into a children’s space. You are walking into a space of education. I think it’s doable.”
What specific elements would go into designing such a space? “So, first, I think, light…I believe education is about light, enlighten. When you think of enlightening a child, you are bringing light. I would want light throughout the space. That people feel…natural light… And feel a connection to the sun and to that. You want a space where natural products are used throughout. So, not cold steel, but you want wood. You want cork floors. Children love to run around bare feet. They should feel comfortable on the floor, so it should feel soft underneath them the way that when you walk into a community, any rural community around the world, children are running around in the dirt with their shoes or their flipflops…I think rounded spaces matter so that everything is not angular and built in a way that’s sharp, but instead you have rounded spaces.”
Khary speaks in well-formed paragraphs and paints pictures with well-chosen words. He delves into the experience of writing his first novel, Passage. “It’s a cathartic experience…I’ve written a lot of essays, personal essays, essays about issues of social justice and politics, and then that’s what I’ve published most widely until now. But that’s a very different kind of writing for me than writing a novel. There’s a part with a novel that just feels cathartic. It feels like something that I just had to get out of me, a story that felt like…it demanded to be told. I could hear the voices in my head that became the characters. Passage is layered with family stories. Stories that inspired things that maybe you expanded on but they originated from the family. They resonated with me.”
He continues. “It’s a book that has an aspect…of mysticism, of parable — magical realism as they call it in Latin American tradition. It’s a very internal book. I mean if you think about your internal life and walking down the street, all the conversations you have with yourself, all the things you see and comment on and you don’t tell your partner, you don’t tell your husband and your wife or your child. The people most intimate to you might not be privy to that conversation. And I sought to bring out that internal conversation of this young man facing prohibitively unjust conditions…here in the United States. And so getting it out was that, but then the next process is a famous line about writing. Which is that writing is ‘rewriting is rewriting is rewriting,’ and so once it was out, then there was a very intentional long term process of re-edits and re-edits and fine tuning of language…I studied at the University of West Indies for a time in Kingston, Jamaica, and I had a writing teacher down there named Mervyn Morris [the first post-independence Poet Laureate of Jamaica] and he used to always say, ‘Keep it clean,’ and I always hear that. Every time I’m writing, every word: ‘Keep it clean.’”
What does it mean to keep it clean? “Any word that is not necessary shouldn’t be there. Anything that is being overly described should be reduced… You know, allow the characters and the words to speak for themselves. And so, there’s a powerful, for me, part of the novel which is that no one is named in the novel and so the main character is called Warrior because that’s what his name means, but that’s not his actual name. And so instead his mother is his mother, his father is his father, his sister is his sister. But the power of names, which is something that means a tremendous amount to me in the family that I was raised in, is something that he actually has to learn to reclaim.”
We get into a discussion of what centers Khary. A morning mindfulness practice that allows him to plan his day and process his dreams. Long walks while listening to jazz. Other musical genres depending on his mood. His love for Bob Marley, Marvin Gay, Prince and Fela. And among female vocalists, Nina Simone and Billie Holiday stand out. “Billie is the pain and ethos of black women in this country, like I’ve never heard. And Nina Simone is the defiance and power of black women’s voices like I’ve never heard. Like that’s like the bookends for me – that’s what I hear,” he says. And among the jazz greats, Miles Davis and John Coltrane stand out. “I think Miles is the closest thing that I could get to mindfulness through music – this is how I would describe it, and Trane is the closest thing I could get to spirituality. I mean Trane is the intersection of art and spirituality,” he adds.
And what advice does he have for those embarking on their own journeys of self-discovery, creativity, and entrepreneurship? “Be brave. Don’t be afraid to be who you are… If you have the opportunity to follow your dream, and unfortunately not everybody does, but if you do, you should be following it. You should be taking the chances to live your life in a way that inspires you. And I think that all of us have choices to make every day about how we want to live our life. What kind of fathers and mothers we want to be. What kind of humans we want to be.”
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