Joseph McDaughtery and the Name Tattooed on the
Area of Skin Just Above His Eyelids
By Nuala Lincke-Ivic


"Earthquake" by Joseph McDaughtery from West Los Angeles College (audio only).

I remember reading something, back in the 1970’s, that a famous black actor said about his wife—why he bought her such nice jewelry, clothes and cars. He thought that few black women were allowed a chance to shine. When I read that comment, it made immediate sense to me: a white kid, I had a black brother-in-law, and before his advent into our lives and the introduction into our family line of two beautiful black-white children, my niece and nephew (why do black-white kids always seem the most beautiful?), my parents were part of a black-caucus movement to integrate a religious institution—which was racially segregated—so I knew that racism, as scary and complicated as Grendel1, existed. (I remember the feeling, like I was being boiled alive in one massive and brief stare, as dozens of pairs of eyes in an all-white congregation zeroed in on me and my black brother-in-law, holding my black-white niece, when we showed up for a weekend service.)

So why am I writing about racism in this introduction (to music-makers and potential fans, I hope) of Mr. Joseph McDaughtery? I’m writing about racism because Joseph is black, but he won’t suffer the kind of racial discrimination that many black artists did in decades (and centuries) past. No, today racism will probably not stop him from achieving his potential as an artist: a gifted music-maker (producing sounds that are words with beautiful meanings and sounds that are rhythmic noises for the words with beautiful meanings). What may stop Joseph from realizing his potential are the obstacles that have stopped, stop, and will stop many artists:

  1. He won’t gain the technical expertise he needs in his medium to refine his artwork (in his case, a good producer and studio time, so he’ll fool around with an unsophisticated little microphone/tape recorder contraption I’ve seen him use until he feels doing so is a waste of time, and he’ll quit pursuing his art).
  2. Nobody with power will understand how talented he is and act on that conviction.

The good news is that the playing field has leveled out. What might discourage a budding artist like Joseph from pursuing his art is what stops all artists, regardless of ethnicity, from pursuing their art: lack of necessary technical expertise, and non-attention from others. At least Joseph will not be discouraged from pursuing his art because he’s a black man. And that’s a big step forward. But Joseph’s plight as an artist, one of many siblings from a family without a lot of money (which might be a description of my family back in the 1970’s), is dispiriting. He needs help to succeed as an artist.

My wish is for Joseph to succeed as an artist, and by succeed, I don’t mean become rich and famous (these days, that seems too easy—and temporary); no, I wish that Joseph will be able to create the kind of expertly crafted, meaningful artwork that I, as his former English teacher, know he is capable of creating—and in the process, inspire others by the stories he tells in his lyrics, as he inspired me on more than one occasion.

Let me tell you a little bit about Joseph. I first met Joseph in one of my writing classes, and I noticed him immediately—not as an artist—but because of his tatts: He had the word “Jesus” tattooed on the smooth, velvety chocolate-colored skin above one eyelid and the word “Christ” tattooed on the skin above the other eyelid. He also had crosses tattooed on his face. “Oh…! What has this kid done!” I thought; “What has he done to his face, his beautiful face!” As a product of an older generation, even though I was a punk rocker in my youth, I was horrified. The truth is: I had been a punk rock poseur—I just liked the clothes, hair and make-up. When I was in my late teens, my brother used to draw realistic-looking fake tattoos on my arms for me, hearts with knives driven through them, and the word “Mom” inscribed in them (which I thought made me seem cool), and skulls and crossbones (which I thought made me seem even more cool—cool and deliciously dangerous), and I had never considered getting real tatts engraved on my skin. I didn’t like this form of body art, and I didn’t like another (but less common) form of body art: the scarification2 on some of my friends’ bodies.

Of course (and forgive an old schoolmarm, all of you with tatts and scar art out there), I didn’t like Joseph’s tatts, but I was also very curious about why he had tattooed Christ’s name on his eyelids. Eventually, he told me why he had tattooed the Christians’ savior’s name above his eyelids and the crosses on his face: He wanted to remember who he wanted to be—a good person—every time he looked in the mirror. Joseph had been heading in the wrong direction in life, taking a very bad path, and he had become impressed by some church-going folk, the message of spiritual goodness and redemption they preached. This explanation seemed so poetic to me, so deeply moving (the idealism that had been born, in the hurly-burly of his life, was astounding to me), that I started to have friendly feelings for the words tattooed over his large, dark eyes and the crosses marking his velvet face. And I felt a great fondness and gratitude for the kind of humble, sincere church-going folk that (I know!) have saved so many young men like Joseph from an unhappy ending on the mean streets of Los Angeles. And…somewhere early during that semester when I was his teacher, I began to discover that Joseph’s tatts were not the only poetry that permeated his existence. Poetry was in his head, not just on his face. I discovered Joseph’s great gift with spoken and written language. Random sentences in his essays seemed like bolts of lightening illuminating chaos3. When I taught our class what similes were, and tried to help students avoid clichés such as “A child is like an angel,” there was Joseph, stringing together words like milky pearls on a piece of shiny string. He would come up with similes that were so original that I would write them on the board (astounded). And he came up with one particular simile, my favorite simile of his: “I grew up like an earthquake, all across California.” This simile is about his childhood, about changing residences a lot when he was a kid, and I encouraged him to turn this simile into a song about his life, which you can listen to if you click on the “Earthquake” link accompanying this introduction of Joseph (to music-makers and potential fans, right?).

But back to Joseph and his presence in my classroom. I must tell you…having Joseph as one of my students caused me quite a bit of agony: I was teaching the class traditional grammar, and I was terrified of destroying his native talent, and I would lament at my copious notes (sometimes in blood-red, of all colors) littering the sides of his essays: about subject/verb agreement and apostrophes and other English usage rules. Indeed, my experience with Joseph—and the rare student like him in my teaching past—prompted me to ask the poets who are teachers, during our Four Poets Interview with them in this issue of West, how we should teach students like Joseph, who are gifted poets and writers. How, I wondered, can we teach them what they need to know technically about writing without negatively affecting their talent (and their self-esteem), inadvertently causing them to eschew the raw colloquial English that is the foundation (quite often) of their art? It’s a painstaking process, but it’s very possible; indeed, it’s crucial.

But back to my introduction of Joseph to you. And so…without further ado (Ta-ta-ta! May I have a drumbeat, please?)…I introduce to you this student, this artist, Joseph McDaughtery, who makes his music on an unsophisticated little microphone/tape recorder contraption, because I believe in his potential to create meaningful artworks, and I hope that you will, too, if you listen to his “Earthquake” song. And don’t pop your eyes in alarm (be amused—and moved, perhaps?) by this title accompanying Joseph’s songs on the ’Net, should you search for and find his music: Prince of Peace, Demon-Eater. “Though this [title may seem to] be [just the usual radical Heavy Metal?] madness, yet there is method in 't."4 It refers to the name tattooed on the area of skin just above Joseph’s eyelids.

1 A ferocious, man-killing monster in the Germanic epic Beowulf
2 Scratching, cutting or burning designs into the skin
3 These words—the chaos illuminated by flashes of lightening—are Oscar Wilde’s, not mine; I just admire them.
4 Hamlet: 2.2