Spoken Words for Joe

September 21, 2009

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Join Umoja, Free Spirit Media and Young Chicago Authors to celebrate the life and contributions of teacher, mentor and spoken word advocate Joe Cytrynbaum. Read Pamela Cytrynbaum's reflections on her brother here, and a Chicago Tribune obituary here.

Hosted by friend and colleague, Kevin Coval, the event was attended by a diverse group of family, friends, colleagues and students - representing the broad influence Joe had across the city.  In tribute, Kevin wrote the following:
 
Joe knew there was something wrong.

the 1st time i really talked with him, he was yelling at me. it was his first year coaching at Louder Than A Bomb and his Umjoa Manley all-boys Flipside team's first year as well. they lost. badly. a group of 8th graders scored higher them. Joe was pissed. after the bout he came to me demanding an explanation, justice, retribution, a ribbon, something for his students who worked hard and never won anything. he said the system was unfair, it should be equitable, why was their so much emphasis on competition. at this point in his dissertation, Joe was no longer talking about the slam.

Joe knew there was something wrong.

over the last 6 or so years he built a powerhouse of a poetry program at Umjoa Manley on the west side in the same neighborhood my Bubbe's family immigrated to from Poland. a neighborhood most Jews had long left except Joe and some staff at Umoja. when i talk about Louder Than A Bomb to teachers, funders, CPS Administrators i talk about how this form of spoken word and hip-hop poetry has the ability to transform the culture of a school. it can take hyper-literate student poets and elevate their social status to that of a star athlete. when i say this i am talking about Joe. about the hours and hours and days and lifetime of ridiculous freestyles and mindful critique and being a father figure to kids who never had one and brother and many times over the only man and white man students at Manley and across the city ever had the chance to see a whole and holy person in care and kindness,
Joe is a tzadik
a part time rabbi to a mixed congregation
able to mix Freie and Biggie in the same pedagogical sermon.

the last time we met
we spoke about a book Joe was writing
highlighting the hip-hop praxis of various community organizations in Chicago.
a man whose light was the brightest in the room
was constantly giving shine to others.

this is what it means to be magnanimous,
a selfless servant of the people
his presence a mirror of our future selves
what he thought and hoped and knew we could be 
he would push us toward.
he saw the best in his students and peers
not cuz he was not bothered by our shortcomings
he was not immune to our shadow selves
he was not blinded to the constant
barrage of injustice and dehumanizing state agents
in the lives of his students
he was wide-eyed and aware.

Joe knew something was wrong.

why else does an Ivy educated Jewish PHD from Evanston spend so much time scouring the notebooks and journals of 16 year olds in North Lawndale, kicking freestyles at Polk and Sacramento to let his students know it is scary and fun to put your creation into the world and if you mess up, stay flowing...

Joe knew something was wrong.

knew for a long time, a lifetime feeling the all weight of what he knew
he knew his north shore suburban education should extend, not depend
on which tax base you were born into,
knew that when kids are engaged fully as intelligent beings
they will excite and exceed and disappoint
regardless of what music they listen to
or what neighborhood they live in

Joe knew there was something wrong.
something wrong with his student's rising body count
something wrong with the perpetual violence threatening their walk home
something wrong with the gangs and police and sometimes home itself
something wrong with how the country stalked and tracked and warred
against bodies of the youthful and colorful

Joe knew there was something wrong with this world and the world at large
He knew the threat of violence was the same for young folks on the west side
as it is on the west bank
and Joe and I,  both jews,
talked about the madness of police states and the privilege
to walk freely to a family dinner or corner store, across borders
and Joe lived between borders
engaged in the practice of tikkun olam
repairing this world yes,
but better put from Joe's labor, putting the fractured and seemingly disparate pieces
of the whole together
Joe was a connector
a bridge between the academy and the block
the north shore and north lawndale
a synthesis of theory and practice
the grit and presence of everyday labor
cuz Joe showed up
in your life
his body warm and graspable
his smile and spirit infectious
his existence a mountain
to climb toward
the worlds
he saw
in you.
 
Joe was necessary
friend and colleague Idris Goodwin
told me today

and there is something wrong with today
cuz Joe not here

not leaving me messages like he did on July 2
asking how he can help with Brave New Voices
and how excited he was for the 10th year of Louder Than A Bomb
and the book

and there is something wrong with today
because we have lost a soldier
on the front lines of the class room, in the community
at the administrative offices of institutions
where he fought for the integrity of people
on the people's side of justice

a fighter, like his son Rocky,
for those sometimes unable to make it into ring

there is something wrong with today
and there will be something wrong with tomorrow

but the energy and chutzpah and drive to work hard
for what must be, lives
to achieve more and better in our lives and in the lives of all
to right this world
to maintain and build upon Joe's tireless labor, his legacy
his ferocity to love
to throw ourselves fully and furiously into our lives and the lives of others
to have the knowledge that there is something terribly wrong
and yet commit ourselves gorgeously and gigantically and courageously
into to the project of making it better
 

Recorded Monday, September 21, 2009 at Manley High School.