An American in Wales (Blog #1)

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By Kevin Powell

Sitting in the window of my hotel here in Cardiff, Wales, alone, already past noon here. Thinking random thoughts about this, my second trip to this country since December 2013.

Dylan Thomas, one of Wales’ greatest writers, turns 100 on October 27th (he died tragically in 1953 in New York City), and I was appointed the International Ambassador for the Dylan Thomas Centennial celebration in America a few months back. A great honor and one I do not take lightly. Dylan Thomas has been one of my favorite writers for many years, and I am doing everything I can to help spread word of his work and this centennial back home in America, and here in Wales, the United Kingdom, as well.

Naturally I am excited about October with tributes happening in Swansea, Wales, London, England, and New York. And I know there are many other “unofficial” salutes to Dylan Thomas occurring across the globe come his birthday week and month. But I need to also say this connection to Wales has gone far beyond Dylan Thomas at this point. I feel as if I have been on an intentional spiritual journey, to not only reveal to me parts of myself I have needed to see in a very different way, outside of America, but also a strong reminder of the profound connections between human beings, no matter where we are from, and where we live.

Do not get me wrong: Wales has serious issues like anywhere else. No question. Two nights straight this week I had the pleasure of spending time and talking with an interracial English couple who’ve settled here in Cardiff (he is White and she is Black). They talked at length the second night about the very disturbing comments, here in Wales, made about their marriage, about race, and the wife was very keen on acknowledging how she has had to seek out safe spaces for herself. She painfully recounted one story where she was only recently asked to go to a certain part of a club, the top floor, so as not to give other (White) customers the impression there would suddenly be a rush of Black people frequenting the space. So anyone who thinks racism is not alive and well all across the planet is being woefully dishonest with themselves.

Yet by the same token the kindness and generosity I have encountered in Wales has been breathtaking and humbling. From members of the government to the arts community, to local activists and scholars to everyday Welsh people and community organizations like Grassroots Cardiff. As someone born and raised in America I know there are many perceptions about the U.S.—both good and bad. I do my best to present myself as an honest and transparent human being, no matter where I am on the planet. The conversations, be it with the youth at Grassroots Cardiff, or with the English couple at their home with other guests, or with Welsh educators earlier in the week, have reminded me over and over of much of the work I do in America.

How to get young people to read more. Why it is important to have arts and culture in schools, every kind of school. Why, in spite of racism and other things that divide people, we must come together and have brutally open and raw conversations about our histories—the ones unique to us and the ones we share. Why community and development cannot mean pushing people out for the new that has come. Why I see incredible homelessness and poverty wherever I go on the planet (I’ve been so very blessed to visit 48 of America’s 50 states and five of the seven continents in the world at this point). Why was I so deeply touched by the children of the traveling community we visited in Pembroke, Wales, a traveling community who in fact call themselves “gypsies” although some say we should no longer use that word. Those children at the Monkton School were brilliant, funny, outspoken, and so engaging I even joined these 12 and 13 boys for a game of soccer during lunchtime (my team lost 10-8).

These children are the children I see back in Brooklyn. In New Orleans. In Oakland. In Kingston. In Brixton. In every ‘hood everywhere. They are fascinated by sports and music and celebrity and tech toys. They had an unbelievable swagger when we were playing football but quite a few were quiet when we had the conversations afterwards about learning. I stressed to them they were geniuses, but that that genius needed to extend to all parts of their lives, no matter what. And the challenge is for them to fall in love with reading more, with books more, to lift their aspirations and imaginations beyond what the world has given them. Indeed we toured their community of so-called gypsy families. In America we would call the area low-income housing, or trailer parks, or housing projects. But here they were, a community, amongst themselves, doing the best they could with little to nothing.

I was especially moved by a woman named Bev Stephens, who said she has been working with this Welsh traveling community for 25 years, to the point where families often come to her home after school hours for help. We stopped to talk with one father, whose son was kept home from school to work on this day. There also was the grandfather, three generations of males together, and they looked so much alike. The father leaned into the car and begged Ms. Stephens to help his daughter get to university. “She must go to college, Ms. Stephens, please.” Although the father did not have much formal education himself he knew it was a ticket out for his daughter and he knew that Ms. Stephens knew how to make it happen.

I cannot tell you how many times I have had conversations like that with American parents back home. How many times folks like myself have done whatever we could to get a young person into school, back into school, to a college or trade school. And how it happened for me, too, when my mother and I had no clue how I would get to college, let alone pay for it.

Moments like these are soulful to me, is what I am saying. Make me long for home, for Brooklyn, for New York City, for my community, to get back as soon as I can to do even more. But I am here, too, because I needed to be away. A life of public service, of helping others to help themselves, is overwhelming — to put it mildly — every single day of your life. You do not unplug you go under. So I make myself stop, pause, take trips, leave my city, leave my country, any time I can.

I am thankful to the life of Dylan Thomas for this opportunity, for those working to remember his life and work forever. After the Pembrokeshire visit we wound up, my escort and I, at the last home Dylan Thomas ever lived in — in the city of Laugharne — a boathouse. It was something to go inside both his boathouse, where he lived with his wife and three children, and also his separate writing shed or what they call in the U.K. a “garage,” to touch the very simple table where he wrote poetry, fiction, plays.

The boathouse and the shed overlook a mighty water, and nature is everywhere. For sure Wales is one of the greenest places I’ve ever seen in my life. The beauty is that stunning in this nation. We also visited the Brown Hotel where Dylan Thomas often drank. A local man named Roy, already drunk in the early afternoon, leaned over me repeatedly, his breath a hot fire of alcohol, fascinated with my American accent and my constant use of the word “sir.”

Finally I paid my respects at the local cemetery where Dylan Thomas and his wife Caitlin are buried together, virtually on top of each other, it appeared. Dylan Thomas only lived 39 short years but his was a prolific life of writing that has spread across the globe.

I think often of my own work as a writer, what I have done, what I still want and have to do. Writing is hard, so very hard. It is a craft, something not to be taken lightly, to me, ever. As the legendary literary agent Marie Brown has said many times “Anyone can be an author, anyone can author a book, but not everyone is a writer.” Dylan Thomas was a writer, one of the best ever, in my humble opinion. Over a decade ago I worked on the 100 birthday celebration of Langston Hughes, the great African-American writer, in Kansas. Langston, too, is one of the best ever. But I never thought I’d be doing something like this again, let alone internationally, but here I am.

I sincerely believe things come our way if we are open, completely, to the possibilities of life. And if we are forever in touch with our imaginations. I’ve got a five-six more days in Wales then on to London for a few days. So much more to say, so much more to do…