Scott Woods: What Made Charles ‘Is Said’ Lyons an Elder

The life of the late Columbus poet offers lessons on what it means to be a community and cultural inspiration.

Scott Woods
Columbus Monthly
The late poet Charles "Is Said" Lyons, pictured in 2002, died of cancer in February.

Having recently lost an important figure in both my artistic and cultural communities—legendary Columbus poet Charles “Is Said” Lyons—I am reflecting on the definition of elder.

When I was a die-hard Pan-Africanist, the definition of an elder was defined by both age and the need to instill protective measures in a community under constant attack. Basically, if you were over the age of 65, you were an elder. Didn’t really matter if you cared about Black people or not; I was obligated to care about you. If you happened to participate in activities or organizations that were aimed at protecting Black people, even better. I didn’t need a political value system installed in me to deliver this basic level of respect. I have a Black mother of a certain age who made sure I could navigate the world without embarrassing her in this regard.

As I got older and more active in various communities, the fleeting nature of bandwidth and time began to sink in more, and I realized that while I should confer a basic level of respect on people older than myself, I also needed to weigh whether or not the person receiving that respect was doing anything to earn it. At some point, I started to shift my energy toward elders who expressed an interest in our mutual survival, culturally or literally. It had to be an exchange, in my mind, or I could only carry the respect so far.

Now, many years after that decision, with no small amount of work committed to supporting it, I feel the need to reassess what an elder means once more. Perhaps it is my impending tour into advanced years that makes me want to nail it down. I admit that I haven’t come down on an answer, but that’s OK. The question, When is someone an elder? is a thing best answered by community. 

Is Said was a mentor for generations of writers, particularly poets, but he was also a father figure to people who never wrote a poem in their lives. His funeral service was attended by over 200 people, most of whom were not kin. Is Said’s legacy was secure years before his passing. He wore the mantle of elder with ease. 

The services were attended by many recognized elders of the Black community, people everyone in the room would refer to as an elder. But there was another layer of communal figure that, as I’ve debated several times since, wasn’t quite an elder but was definitely a mentor. Except some of those mentors didn’t sign up for mentorship; they just happened to be people that others derived knowledge and instruction from on occasion, or by example. You can’t say someone is your mentor if you never sat down with them and had them school you on something. That was something else.

Hip-hop is instructive here. The concept of an O.G.—original gangster—is prevalent, and when you talk about who is and isn’t an O.G., the lines are pretty clear. If you’re an O.G., you’ve not only been in the rap world for a long time but contributed to some aspect of it that grew the art form. You could have made that contribution back in 1982, but so long as it could be verified, you were an O.G. forever. You put in work, and that work couldn’t be undone. If that sounds aggressive, please note that hip-hop got this from gang culture. I just didn’t want to come out the box with that observation, lest the reader discount its merits. Gangsters of all kinds have been using the same org chart for thousands of years. 

Scott Woods

Clearly we have several classifications at play: O.G., mentor, elder, griot, guide, soldier, leader. Someone can clearly be none, several, or all of these things at once. It’s not just about age, or just about work. It seems important to me, with so many of the lights that have guided me fading, to dig deeper into what each title means, and which ones I want to be.  

Scott Woods is a poet, cultural critic, essayist and founder of the arts nonprofit Streetlight Guild.