If writing is thinking and discovery and selection and order and meaning, it is also awe, reverence and mystery and magic.  Toni Morrison 


Mysteries and magic of writing elude me; I know Morrison evokes reverence in me as a reader. I have ceded for too long a devotion to the discipline of writing to the enveloping magic and mystery of reading her writing. I still do – it is worthwhile – it is liberatory – but hard as I try, it ain’t escapist. 

I wrote an essay on Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1985. Handwritten, about two pages in length, copied several times over, nonstandard syntax, imperfectly formed ideas, perfectly spelled, smudged lead pencil, and presented it to a Black Baptist minister after his Sunday sermon. My student visa had expired; I was out of legal status in the US. I was desperate; the essay was an appeal for help and the minister – who I’d later learn was one of Dr. King’s closest friends in Boston – read my essay quickly, and gave me yard work to earn some money, then gave me a sofa to sleep on, and then made me his son and secured my life.

Through high school, college, and graduate school and until his retirement, I edited his communications, contributed to the annual reports, and the church bulletins. He was meticulous about words; several revisions were standard practice: black marker over frivolous words, exclamation marks over precise sentences. We’d start in the evenings and work late in his office in the Second African Meeting House, which memorialized the descendants of the First African Meeting House on Joy Street in Beacon Hill. He was a self-described night owl. I became his preferred editor; it was an achievement for me. I wrote his obituary and his funeral program, when it was time, and the fullness of that training carried me through grief. 

I was born before the Somali government adopted Latin characters as its orthography in 1972. I remember the first characters I tried to write were Arabic. My mother wrote in Swahili. My primary education began in Pune, India at a Seventh-Day Adventist school my mother enrolled me in when I was seven years old, and she returned to Saudi Arabia as a domestic worker to pay for my school fees. Beulah, my tutor, made me write each word several times until I was a meticulous speller, which was my first achievement as a writer in English. Similarly, I memorized sentence patterns by copying as if the sentences were mine. Mimetic, convoluted, nonstandard sentences until I was in high school when I discovered how to use commas by copying James Baldwin in the library where I wrote the essay on King, which I gave to my future father who started me with the conventions of writing church bulletins.  

In my first job as an English teacher, I wrote a course called Writing for College. I later submitted that course as an appeal to the hiring committee of the Boston Arts Academy, which opened in 1998. I contributed to the design of a school-wide writing program that became a 4-year seminar co-taught by arts and academic teachers. It was a contested course, but it also solidified the primacy of writing in the school. By then, I’d evolved in my understanding of the dialectical power of nonstandard English, deeply committing to bending convention in search of voice. Having studied with Robert Pinsky and Derek Walcott, I was writing more poetry. I had started Slateblue Arts, a student-run literary and visual arts magazine at the school. I immersed myself in students’ creative activities; I wrote an ethnography on the cultural production of youth in the context of arts learning which earned me a doctorate.    

I was never the same teacher after August 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, for I could never unsee who is really protected and safe in the US. I had no choice but to challenge the “apolitical” or “neutral” stances my teaching colleagues preferred. I became more subversive, and more public about my politics; I organized with teachers and with students to address varying and relentless forms of institutional violence. I studied, and still do, the grammar and pedagogy of social movements – these contested, quotidian efforts to recover spaces for human dignity and planetary survival. 

I join WriteBoston to revisit inescapable questions about continuing as a writer in English by journeying with other writers. Here at WriteBoston is a promise of a communal, writerly work with a Board that is dedicated to supporting an impassioned, committed team of educators who are creating conditions for the next generation of journalists, thinkers, and community workers. The civic intelligence and practices are long and deep, with an interdependent sensibility for how all our futures are tied to our youth fashioning and writing their lives.  

With our staff, Board of Directors and institutional partners, it is truly a privilege to imagine WriteBoston’s next chapter, contributing to Sarah Poulter’s visionary and tireless work to establish this organization that is serving 133 students, 137 educators, and annually impacting 1500 students in partner classrooms. Together, with Jenny Leopold who generously stepped in the interim and is returning as a Board member, we will deepen our relationships and work to affirm our values and mission. Your continuing support will be more important than ever, and I am eager to have conversations about why WriteBoston means so much to you. Please connect with me at abdiali@writeboston.org or join me at Pros&Conversation on Thursday, May 11.

With our young people, our competence builds their trust. Acting with urgency—working late, when needed, for the right word—engenders their confidence. 

In community,  

Abdi Ali, Ed.D