The polymathic professor.
Since meeting the powerfully named Fanon Che Wilkins over a year ago while dancing Michael Jackson’s memory to the skies in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, I have seen him only twice: ringing in the new year at the Harlem home of mutual friend, theHotness Grrrl and just last month as we enjoyed pristine September weather in the Prospect Heights garden of Le Gamin. Though I’ve kept up with the Kyoto-based scholar/lecturer/photographer/curator/DJ/hip-hop head/hardcore Lakers fan and his travel exploits via Facebook (snowboarding in Aspen, visiting his Pops in Belize, surfing in Costa Rica and Second Lining in NOLA) it was good to have an unhurried sit-down to catch up as the old folks say, “proper-like,” Over salmon crêpes and merguez omelets, we covered the gamut — the wisdom of our sages from August Wilson to the RZA, the merits of non-conformity and beauty of serendipity.
In fact, our having met in 2009 had a delightfully serendipitous consequence. Fanon, strapped with a long-lensed Canon shot the MJ park celebration and posted the pics to Facebook where his mom, Akiba Kiiesmira saw them and recognized me. She, an incredible textile artist and designer whose work I’d used in the pages of Essence, and I had been friends in the nineties but we’d lost touch.
During the final year of the sixties, twenty-year-old Akiba (then MaryAnn) gave birth to her first child in Los Angeles. She and her partner, Ron Wilkins, poised for revolution, named their manchild after revolutionaries Frantz Fanon and Che Guevara. A member of the Slauson Village gang in the 1950’s, Ron was at the center of the 1965 Watts Rebellion, “a politicizing moment for him.” Akiba was reading voraciously: “dialectical historical materialism and Marxist theory.” Both were members of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.) Organizing was the young family’s lifeblood. When Fanon was six-months-old, Akiba ventured to Cuba for a month to join the Venceremos Brigade, cutting sugar cane and showing solidarity with the Cuban Revolution while “Pops held it down” in Cali.
By the time he was two-years-old, Fanon’s folks amicably parted ways, sharing custody. He bounced between parents and cities. His mom relocated to Atlanta to work in a shirt collar factory with the goal of “organizing the workers at the point of production.” They lived in a collective house and Fanon attended the independent liberation school, Learning House, where the children pledged before each meal, fists proudly raised, “I will eat all my food to grow big and strong to work in the struggle for African people.” At some point during the early years a decision was made that Fanon would alternate years with each parent.
He returned to Los Angeles and a father who was serious about working outside “the system.” For a kid, “no Disneyland, no Christmas, no frivolity,” was a drag, but his grandmother and aunt “brought balance. They made sure I had a rib,” he smiles. “That was their resistance. In a lay-down-the-law move, G-ma had him photographed with St. Nick and hung it on the wall. “He was a big, pink-white Santa…the penultimate, and I’m sitting on his lap.” He speaks lovingly of her clear-headedness, “she wouldn’t fly,” her refusal not from fear but rather practicality; she’d witnessed many pilots tippling the cocktails. “I see the world from the ground up. I ain’t no fool,” she’d say.
The journey from South Central to the halls of academia has been an interesting one. Six-year-old Fanon was stymied by stage fright when his Dad took him to audition for the Jackson Five Variety Show in 1975. As they exited the studio set, teen idol Michael consoled him by getting down on one knee, wiping the tears from his eyes and offering some words of encouragement. “A beautiful brother,” he fondly recalls.
In esteemed company: with the future “King of Pop” and the good doctor “Brother West.”
Amid “radicals, pimps, drug dealers and scholars,” he had an “irreverent, sacred and secular upbringing.” He was “partially raised by Richard Pryor,” he says. This resonates in his endeavors now, from his academic pursuits to his lush photographs. “To do what Romare Bearden did, what August Wilson did. In an unalloyed way, to see the beauty of the real. Its tragic, sacred and profane beauty.”
Though he’d been introduced to photography through his dad, he didn’t realize that “you could go to school to get a BFA.” The cerebral high school athlete (basketball and football) became a Morehouse man, returning to Atlanta to embark upon what would become an accomplished career in the study of history (with a concentration in African American Studies.) The summers of his early twenties were spent hosting and bonding with his younger (by ten years) brother Kamari. Graduate school would take him to the eponymous university in Syracuse, NY, where he would live for nine years–the longest he’s ever lived in one place. He did, however, take a year off to travel to Cuba and Southern Africa, spending much of it in Zimbabwe. In one of the many providential experiences of his life, he met author/scholar Robin D.G. Kelley and set his sights on a doctorate, exploring (at NYU with Kelley as his adviser) the global liberation struggles of oppressed and marginalized people –particularly in African nations– and their profound impact on the Black Power and Civil Rights Movements in the US.
Fit and fabulous: the gorgeous, ageless Akiba and her sons, Fanon and fitness trainer Kamari.
Upon his return from the continent, he committed to being “a real black man…settle down, raise a family.” He married fellow academician, Assata and in 1997 they became the parents of a daughter, the creative, oboe-playing Coltrane. In 1999, joyful, “extremely laid-back” son Irie followed. Though the couple divorced, just as his own parents were “totally cool, not together, but fully functional,” Fanon and his former wife lived near each other, peaceably co-parenting in Champaign where they both were graduate professors at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Fanon met Lashanda, who has since relocated to Japan with him where he was offered an Associate Professorship in African American History and Culture at the Graduate School of American Studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto.
Used to a very hands-on relationship with his children, Fanon has felt anxiety over his newly peripatetic fatherhood, but given his own childhood, he realizes too what a broadening experience it can be for the children to spend the school year in Champaign and summers in Kyoto. He of course, visits the children stateside a few times a year and maximizes every moment. Though he definitely gets his travel on, when in Kyoto he lives “a simple life. No frills. I don’t have a car. I ride my bike or take public transportation.”
Fanon invites us to “see what eye see” on his photo blog— the beautiful Lashanda, his kids in flight and glimpses of life in Japan.
He recently co-edited From Toussaint to Tupac: The Black International Since the Age of Revolution, a 2009 collection of scholarly essays on black internationalism and contributed the fifth chapter, “A Line of Steel: The Organization of the Sixth Pan-African Congress and the Struggle for International Black Power, 1969-1974,” to the just released The Hidden 1970s: Histories of Radicalism edited by Dan Berger.
In spite of the rarefied worlds he’s found himself in, Fanon remains incredibly grounded and grateful. His Mama, Daddy, village raised him up right. He’s an intellectual who’ll drop the knowledge without pedantry, a cat you can kick back and have a brew with. Of academia, he says, “I’m with people who posture all the time. I’m trying to live as authentically as possible. Life happens in the blur, the grey areas. I can’t front.” So from this authentic life enthusiast, a few things he enjoys in the blur…
1. Fragrance Oils. He hasn’t worn cologne since high school. “It’s all oils.” He got hooked after he was given and advised to sell a “hefty supply of Somali Rose and Arabian Sandalwood to make some money for books and supplies.” The “terrible businessman,” got a little too hooked, breaking one of the “Ten Crack Commandments and ‘got high on my own supply’ by keeping it all to myself and wearing it on a daily. I have come to fashion myself a connoisseur of fine oils.”
“Uncut and as pure as they come,” a quartet in his fragrance cache. “Gold Dust is sick and I can generally rock any Musk, especially when it’s hot and my skin is moist.”
2. Deejaying. “I live for music and have been deejaying for a while out of necessity. I’ve lived in more than my share of backwater towns and have had to resurrect the good old house party just to keep my sanity. I have done a few clubs in my day, but I mostly get down for fun and push my friends to throw parties and hire me.”
“My music equipment and untouched clutter. I figured I had to be a real DJ and keep it all the way real.”
3. Shirley the Surly. “I ride every single day. Big Shirley takes me all over the streets of Kyoto. She’s a simple fixed-gear Surly Steamroller that has never failed me — aside from a flat or two or three. Everybody should own a bike and ride it. Bike lanes need to be mandatory.”
Big Shirley keeps him fit, saves money and is eco-friendly.
4. 35-pound Kettlebell. “It’s the most important piece of exercise equipment I own. I love to go hard and keep it simple and safe.”
“Join the revolution and buy one,” Fanon enthuses.
5. Sneakers. “Like the great philosopher Nasir Jones, ‘I’ma addict for sneakers.’ I truly believe that Hip-Hop’s greatest contribution to civilized behavior was making sneakers high fashion because I prefer a nice pair of tennis (a nod to the Left Coast vernacular) over just about anything that goes on my feet.”
“I copped these [Puma] joints in Kyoto about a year ago, but recently pulled them out and I think they look better than when I bought them.”
6. Leica Digi-Lux 2. “I am a camera gear fanatic. I love photography. I lust and salivate for the tools of the trade. This Digi-Lux is my first ever purchase on Ebay and I am having a blast with it. One day I will own an M9, but for now I am getting my Leica on with this trusty little throwback that was made way back in 2004. In digital camera years that’s like 20 years ago.”
“You just can’t front on the seamlessness of Leica design — sleek, simple and uncluttered.”
7. Blendtec Blender. “I pretty much make a smoothie of some sort every single day. When I was in search of a trusty blender, it was between the Blendtec and VitaMix.” The Blendtec won him over. Three years in, he hasn’t been disappointed.
Even though he ordered the black model but received the white, “he got over it and made a smoothie.”
8. Skype. “People often ask me how difficult it is to live abroad. ‘Don’t you miss your family and friends?’ they always ask. Yes and no, thanks to a wonderful invention called Skype. I got put up on it when I was in Brazil in 2006 and it has made my life abroad a cinch.”
Modern technology: Coltrane and Irie can pick up their home phone, dial their Dad’s “Skype in” number and it rings on his computer 6000+ miles away.
9. Eyeglasses. He’s worn them since his sophomore year of college. “I jokingly tried my buddy Arshad’s on and damn near lost my mind because I discovered that blurred chalkboards were not actually blurry at all. I used the first credit card I ever got — a Sears jammy — and bought my first pair of eyeglasses.”
“Simple, elegant, timeless and nerdy as f***, but in a hip way, he says of his artisanal frames from French eyewear company, Vue dc.”
10. Snowboarding. He’s been surfing the slopes for about eight years (Nagano, Aspen, Whistler, Tahoe.) “When it comes to something I live for I don’t think anything tops the list more these days than snowboarding. Ride a snowboard, you will live longer,” he opines.
“When the mountains are steep and the snow gets deep,” he uses his (left) Tanker 200 by Rad-Air—a long board only built for Cuban Linx. His “go-to board for all-around conditions” is the Prior All Mountain Freestyle with hybrid rocker. “I had the pleasure and honor of visiting the Prior plant and taking a tour of the factory in Whistler, BC.” The gear geek admits the tour got a “rise” out of him.
*Excepting Blendtec and Skype, all photos of Trove items courtesy of Fanon Che Photography.