A BLG Thing: New Black Poetry

When I was writing my latest blog post about Essence magazine, I mentioned that every month the poetry was hidden in the very back of the magazine, and how insulting I thought this was.

But I didn’t say that, before the poetry in Essence was regulated to the “colored section,” there used to be a place of honor for Black writers–poets and fiction writers– in Essence. I remember reading the “literary” works of Alice Walker and June Jordan, and works by such “commercial” writers such as BeBe More Campbell and Terry McMillan.

And then, all that fabulousness stopped.

What I didn’t say in my last blog post is that I also think that our (Black) publications set the tone for what we think is important in our community. And since Essence moved from a cultural publication that was also fun, fly, and fashion forward, to an air-headed, vacuous cousin of that, the message to the readers of Essence was that reading is not fundamental—at least not for Black folks.

Yesterday, I was thinking, Hey, my blog ain’t no Essence Magazine, but I am a Black poet, and I write poetry and I know a lot of sassy Black folks who write poetry, too. I mean, I know a lot of Black poets.

You know, back in the day, Black folks used to love their poets—Langston Hughes traveled the South as a young man, and Black people crowded to see him: Poor people. People without formal education. People who knew that Brother Langston loved them. Believe it or not, not a lot has changed about Black poets–we still love our community and our folks.

But what seems to have changed is that lately, Black writers, especially poets, don’t seem to get a lot of love back from the people.

You know what, though? I ain’t here to yell at nobody. I’m just an optimistic Sister, and I think that there are some folks out there just looking for me–and other folks like me–to let them know where the good stuff is.

So with that in mind, I decided to start a Black Library Girl feature on this blog for New Black Poetry, so y’all can see that it is possible for Black poetry to be fabulous and real—something regular people would like to read, and not just siddity folks who talk to other siddity folks, and all them folks only eat real teeny, tiny food on little, bitty plates.

Despite the bad press, we Black poets do enjoy us some chicken wings and ribs on a semi-regular basis.

And then, of course, y’all know I have to “rep” the OG Black poets, like Brother Langston, so I’ll  also feature some “Throwback Poetry Jams”—some of my favorite poems from back in the day. Some you may already know these poems, but I’m hoping to introduce at least a few folks to some lost classics.

Of course, I will still be conducting my “You Gotta Read This” podcast–click the BLUE button on the left, y’all, to hear past podcasts–on a pretty regular basis as well, featuring interviews with fabulous poets, fiction writers, and non-fiction writers who are of African descent or who write about people of African descent.

Since this is my blog—smile—I’m going to start this New Black Poetry thing off. I’ve been writing my you-know-what off for the last few months; I wrote the following poem a little while ago for a pretty, young thing that passed me by.

Despite the title, he was several years past legal, y’all. I promise.

—-

Ode to Youngblood

for A. M.

Brother, lover—pretty, flaky thing—
knock & bring your present, ask this house
a few unusual requests.
Ask the color blue, for example.

Tap on the door, ask this house,
reach out a knocking hand.
I hear your threshold blues.
Keep still two seconds, baby

Reach out a hand.
I promise. It will come to that.
Keep still—now move—
now touch that place just opening—

I promise—I will
There is a cup of something waiting
if you open the door:
find out and see.

There is water to drink, waiting
on the table, on this woman’s skin.
Find the blues on that surface.
Show some tight perception.

There is time left on my skin.
It’s spring—for now, I mean.
I hear those other heartbeats,
the sounds new creatures make.

It’s spring now. Wait a minute, wait
Weeks ago the ice came down—
sounds of hurt creatures
covered that tree by my front door.

How the ice came down—
it was a prison—
killing the tree by my door, the one
you said you’d chop down for me.

Stay, stay, baby & hold me
Take what you want from this house:
my body, my good name, all my clothes,
my Teacake, my Youngblood, my nearly-here thing.

Click On This: Black Woman Under the Bus AGAIN

Don’t think I haven’t been following the Shirley Sherrod mess for the past week. Even up here at the Vermont Studio Center (in the mountains, okay?), where I am trying to write several hours daily in order to finish a book (which is why I’m not blogging more frequently), still, I follow the news closely.

They did that Sister horribly, but I can’t say I’m surprised. I looked at my watch and discovered, it was right about time for a Sister to get thrown under the bus—again.

I’m not making light of this. I’m simply stating facts.

Every presidential administration, you get a Sister who has to take one for the team. In fact, there’s a long history of Sisters taking one for the team, but rarely does anyone make a big deal about it.

For example, when Reagan was running for president in 1976, he made a whole class of Sisters into the villains. Remember the “welfare queens”? Oh, yes, how can we forget that group of Sisters who were getting PAID IN FULL off their $237.00 a month government checks?

Dang, I’m just surprised them Sisters weren’t all living together in a Black community on the French Riviera with that kind of cash at their monthly disposal.

Sidebar: Yet for some reason, Barack sucked up to White conservatives during the last election, praising Ronald Reagan. I was a little confused, because last I heard “Reagan” was a dirty word in the Democratic community. Can you say, “Crack epidemic” and “cuts to higher education” anyone?

Or, remember Lani Guinier, President  Clinton’s extremely accomplished nominee for the Justice Department, who had to go gently into that good night? But still, we Black folks loved ourselves some Bill. In fact, very few of us even remember Lani Guinier. It was only until Bill and Hillary committed the grave sin of knocking aside Martin Luther King, Jr. that we Black folks stopped calling him our First Brother President. You know there are three people you cannot talk bad about in the Black community: somebody’s mama, Jesus, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Or, what about Condi Rice? I will never forget being at the Furious Flower Conference in 2004 and hearing an OG Black Arts Movement poet (who shall remain nameless) call her “Condoleeza The Skeezer.”  The whole audience–except me and my friend sitting beside me–burst into raucous laughter. I was like, what’s the joke?

I ain’t saying that Condi is one of my sheroes or that I’m gone get a t-shirt with her face in sparkly paint on it or nothing. But Condi Rice was simply carrying out orders for the Bush Administration—in the same way that Colin Powell did. Sure, those orders were lowdown, but Colin followed those lowdown orders the same way Condi did. So how come Colin Powell gets the Big Black Hero hat while Condi got called out of her name?

So, here we go again, in the Obama Administration with Shirley Sherrod, though in Obama’s defense, the lady was a little low down on the hierarchy for him to know what was going on.

And I must confess that I am warmed by the Black folks—Sisters AND Brothers this time—who are rushing to Sherrod’s defense. It makes me feel good that Black men are stepping up to the plate and defending Sherrod in public, even when it took Barack a long, long time to right this situation.

I love Barack. I really do. But I wish he would stop worrying so much about his popularity and start getting hardcore. Because he might not have a chance at a second term and conservative White folks can’t stand him and never will like him, so he just needs to get over it and start pandering to his base–which is liberals of all complexions.

Yes, I said it.

And if the Democrats lose the next election, and one of these crazy Tea Bagger folks gets in presidential office, the old Black ladies will be right. We really will be living in The Last Days. I ain’t ashamed to say, I’m scared y’all. I got my prayerfest going, ’cause I want to pay off my student loan debt before Jesus comes for me. Or, I HOPE he’s coming for me. I’m just saying.

Unlike much of the rest of the blogosphere, I have tried to hold my tongue—or fingers, in this case—until I found out all the facts about Shirley Sherrod. I’ve done some reading and viewing. Below is a list of what I think are the best links that deal with different aspects of the Sherrod debacle.

Here’s a cut and dried explanation of what happened in the New York Times–so click on this.

Always brilliant, always courageous, Melissa Harris Lacewell breaks down the history of publicly vilifying Black women on MSNBC Countdown in five minutes–so click on this. In a nutshell, Harris Lacewell says it ain’t nothing new.

I gotta say, as a poet, I can’t help but admire Harris Lacewell’s serious on-point economy with words. She just gets all Shazam! on folks.

And here’s Harris-Lacewell’s regular, fabulous and sassy blog for The Nation, where she says, there’s a silver lining to this Sherrod situation–so click on this:

Bob Herbert says the Sherrod affair is just the latest evidence showing that the Obama administration gets punked by race issues every time–so click on this.

Over on Brother Mark Anthony Neal’s blog, two guest bloggers weigh in on this issue. First, Stephanie Dunn on the NAACP, among others– so click on this.

And then, Chris Kromm talks about the actual racism in the USDA. Hint: it’s not the Black folks–so click on this.

When it comes to the Tea Baggers, Michael Eric Dyson (on CBS News) says about Obama administration, “If you scared, then say you scared”–so click on this.

And finally, on The Root, Tom Burrell says Black leaders need to take a stand on race–so click on this. I could have told Burrell that a lot time ago, but he breaks it down in a much better way than I ever could, so I’m not mad at him.

Ok, y’all, I got to get back to my hustle and put some words down on this page! Wish me luck on finishing a book this summer. I need luck, mojo, and prayer, too, so whatever you can throw my way, get it going and I will appreciate it.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Dating an Uppity Black Woman

I have a dear friend who explained to me a while back why so many Black women have such a hard time dating out there. She says that because Black women are so devalued in the public eye—the media, etc., we become devalued personally, too. Thus, we don’t have as much romantic currency in North American society as, say, White women.

I don’t disagree with my friend, who is brilliant. Who can argue that Black women are constantly being low-rated in the media, and in rap songs played by trashy Negroes passing by in their 1965 beat-up Buicks that they put thousand-dollar rims on? The negative onslaught is obvious.

My solution to the current Black-on-Black dating situation facing Black women is to encourage Sisters to stop worrying about Black men, and start tending to their own self-esteem. Instead of lowering standards and dating men who are clearly unworthy or worse, sharing a part of a supposed decent man with another Sister, we should start embracing our uppity. I mean, we’ve tried everything else, like throwing our pride to the side–at this point what do we have to lose by celebrating ourselves FIRST?

I’ve already established that I am unabashedly uppity, and that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with smart, fabulous, and super-cute–in fact,  I designed the Black Library Girl line of t-shirts to rep that fabulous status (that’s the t-shirt on the right). You can click this link to order one on Zazzle.com.

But I am reclaiming the phrase “uppity”–and trying to make it positive– because I’d like more Black women to be asserting their uppity. Or rather, come out of the closet and admit that they are uppity already, and just hiding because they are afraid of people asking that age-old question all fabulous Sisters are asked: “Who does she think she is?”

Because for the past, like, FOREVER, there has an concerted effort to convince Black women that we don’t have a right to think well of ourselves, especially when it comes to dating. The attitude is, “How dare Black women have self-esteem when the Black community is having such a hard time?” (Like one can’t thrive if the other is doing well.)

As I told my friend, I know who my Master/Mistress is, and that is not the media, Steve Harvey, or some trifling Negro blasting misogynist curse words at me from his stereo speakers in the name of some other trifling Negro’s alleged musical/artistic license.

Above all, I am allergic to desperation when it comes to dating, and this not only includes dating Brothers, but all colors of the male persuasion. But my embracing my fabulousness does not take care of the lack of training that some Brothers have when it comes to approaching, much less “courting” Uppity Sisters.

So I decided to write an Idiot’s Guide for those men—of all complexions, because frankly, the numbers out there speak to  shortage of Black men to go around. However, even those Brothers who are there need this training, so for simplicity’s sake, I use Brothers as my first example.

Now, I don’t want anybody to get bent out of shape, so first, let me say, I am not calling anybody an “Idiot.” It’s just a way of writing a reader-friendly handbook.

And also, some men don’t dig women who think well of themselves, so if you don’t dig our kind, this post is not for you. I won’t try to convince you that if you thought well of yourself, you’d want a woman who thought of herself, too. So don’t be leaving mean comments for me below, because it’s not going to change my Uppity opinions, anyway. I say that with the deepest of  love and respect.

Ok, let’s break this down. These are just the most important rules, and, I hope, the most obvious.

#1 Uppity Sisters are smart. Get used to it.

It is never a good sign when a Brother enters an Uppity Sister’s living room, sees her bursting bookcases, and exclaims “Dang! You READ all these books?!”

And that’s all I have to say about that.

#2 Uppity Sisters don’t have a shelf life.

Because Uppity Sisters see life as a journey instead of a literal death sentence, they don’t believe that they peak at twenty-five years old and then go downhill after that. An Uppity Sister works on herself, physically, mentally and spiritually. So actually,  she’s better in her thirties and forties than she was in her teens and twenties; in fact, she’s grateful to be older and wiser. Yes, she acknowledges that some things are beyond her—like bad perms and spandex. And thank God.

#3 Uppity Sisters are legends in their own minds.

An Uppity Sister does not pretend to play hard to get. She is hard to get. It doesn’t matter how cute you are or how much money you make. It doesn’t matter that the statistics barraging an Uppity Sister tell her that a Black woman has a greater chance of winning the Power Ball lottery while being bitten by a rabid dog on her journey climbing up Mount Everest than getting married to a Black man–an Uppity Sister is not pressed about all that, because she’s got a hustle, self-esteem, and she’s never had a problem attracting men. Ever.

So do not expect that her romantic desperation will work in your favor because she doesn’t have any romantic desperation.

#4 If you don’t have any money, provide some services for an Uppity Sister.

Here’s the deal: nobody cares about whether you can pay your bills and it’s tacky to talk about that, anyway. If you want sympathy concerning your finances, call up your mama.

So, if you don’t have enough money to take an Uppity Sister out to dinner or the movies or the Chaka Khan concert, you need to try planting some flowers around an Uppity Sister’s house, doing three of those four loads of laundry she’s got backed up, or painting that red accent wall in her living room. Think Tea Cake from Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Matter of fact, read the book, since it’s on her top ten all-time favorites list, and any man trying to get next to an Uppity Sister needs to be on intimate terms with Sister Zora, a pioneer of the Uppity Brand.

#5 Good sex will not save The Race–great sex won’t, either.

Passing out sex willy-nilly is not one of the responsibilities of being a Race Woman. So stop with the fireside chats about “How to Save Our People”—or “African American Literature”, if you happen to be an English Professor–thinking this is going to pave the way to your getting some. Instead, try “Woman, you are so beautiful, it hurts my eyes,” or–my personal favorite–the old-school maxim, “Girl you are so fine, I will drink a quart of your bath water.”

Because an Uppity Sister has to be told how beautiful she is before moving forward with you.

#6 Do not suggest a casual sex relationship to an Uppity Sister—let her suggest it to you.

Nothing turns off a woman with self-respect more than a man rolling up on her talking about he “doesn’t want a relationship”–even if she only wants a one-night stand.

I mean, lie to me, Pinocchio.

I’m not assuming that there aren’t any sisters out there who don’t just get all mushy inside when a Brother rolls on her with, “Shorty, can I get some?” I’m just saying, none of the Uppity Sisters I know get turned on by that, unless there’s a little role play involved with someone they are already—ahem—well-acquainted with.

An Uppity Sister needs at least the bare minimum of courting before getting romantic, even if it’s just for her peace of mind and pride. So instead of shutting things down, shut up and be nice and you might get a little casual lagniappe, if you’re lucky.

#7 An Uppity Sister does not share a man.

Enough said.

#8 Try a Little Tenderness (Part One)

You don’t demand respect from an Uppity Sister. You love it out of her.

Strong women aren’t strong because they have to be; they are strong because Weak ain’t cute—even Weak-With-A-Man ain’t cute, though sometimes, those Sisters who have been broken down romantically try to convince you how lucky they are to have their piece of a man, even when their misery is screaming a Mahalia Jackson Greatest Hit at you.

A kind, dependable man who loves a strong woman is the man you want to fry chicken for, and by the way, wear very impractical, expensive lingerie at 3 o’clock in the morning for as well. He might even get a sandwich–with the big piece of chicken–and a glass of red Koolaid afterward, too, if he plays his cards right.

I think of that scene in The Color Purple (the movie), where Harpo asks the Brother who is now dating Sophia, his estranged wife, “How you gone let a woman with six kids come out to the juke joint?” (Or something to that effect.)

And the man says to Harpo, “My job ain’t to tell her what to do. My job’s to love her, and take her where she want to go.”

There it is.

#9 Try a Little Tenderness (Part Two)

If you are kind to an Uppity Sister, expect kindness in return—not worship.

Here’s the final, and most important rule: an Uppity Sister doesn’t feel like slobbering all over you for being nice, just because there are a lot of not-nice Brothers out there. She just feels like being nice in return—that’s her responsibility, not overwhelming gratitude for finally finding this rare Canary Diamond of Black Man who actually knows how to act right.

Sidebar: And she shouldn’t slobber all over you to make you feel like a man. That’s the job of your therapist.

Definitely, if you want to get next to her, you need to be nice. That’s both simple and extraordinary, but it’s not because you are A Black Man. It’s because you are extraordinary in and of yourself, no matter what color you are.

And here’s the thing: if she’s an Uppity Sister– a woman who thinks well of herself–it will be so easy for her to be kind back.

Repping Them Old Black Men

I’m still on the road, y’all, moving slowly toward Vermont, stopping for rest every now and then, sometimes one day, or sometimes for two or three. That’s why it’s taking me longer than the four days I had planned. This driving ain’t no joke.

I’ve been so focused on the trip that I just remembered that I have a story coming out this month in the 60th Anniversary edition of Shenandoah. I am so excited, because it is a special Flannery O’Connor issue and she was the literary soul of Milledgeville, Georgia; my people are from Eatonton, which is right up the road from there.

I am in the issue with the super-famous Joyce Carol Oates, along with some other seriously sassy people, like my friend Jake Adam York. My story is called “A Cheerful Tune,” and it’s about an old Black man named Albert Booker T. Washington the Third.

I don’t know if I’ve ever told you, but I am fascinated by old Black men. It’s strange, because most old Black men I know are seriously sexist, but for some reason, that doesn’t bother me in the least. The sexism part is their complexity, what makes them, well, fascinating.

I know my love sounds strange, since I am a radical Black feminist, but I guess it’s because I grew up around these elderly brothers, and I know how to handle them in a way that both lets me keep my pride and my own voice at the same time, and how I handle them is still mannerly towards my elders. (You can thank my mama for my skills in old-school manners.)

There’s something about a brother who has made it to his seventies and beyond that just makes me smile, probably because it’s a rare event. I’m not trying to be funny here. This is the truth.

Anyway, here’s an excerpt of “A Cheerful Tune”:

“Mr. Crawford, you need this box,” Mrs. Gadsden said. “That’s why I’m trying to give it to you. Will you just look inside before you refuse it?”

He already knew what was inside: some nonfat dried milk and cans of nasty, thick peanut butter and a long block of government cheese. That cheese didn’t taste right, not like any cheese Albert had tasted before. It wasn’t real, which is why they tried to make poor people eat it instead of selling it outright in the grocery store to everybody else. The cheese had a greasy taste that you couldn’t get rid of, no matter how you seasoned it, and he didn’t care for baked macaroni or grilled sandwiches, which is the only thing you could make with that mess, and that kind of food repeated on Albert.

“No ma’am, Miz Gadsden. I got me a whole deep freezer of catfish. I got me some squirrel I done shot in there, too. No ma’am, I thank you.”

He was wasting time here in town. He needed to be at the river, fishing.  The line shaking on the water before sinking a bit, and his watching the end of the line for the slightest movement. Laughing softly at how he had the upper hand on those catfish—not too loud. He wouldn’t want to scare them away with words or laughter, but they liked his singing.  He knew how to stand exactly still and wait and hum.  Albert’s daddy had had some Cherokee in him, and he had known how to work roots. His daddy had known what certain dreams meant, and how to cure a sickness, as long as it wasn’t too far gone. How to bring a fish to him in the water.

The soft song for catfish, some kind of spirit tune.  It didn’t make any sense, that tune. No words, but his daddy had told him it was a song of permission, that you were asking the catfish to give itself over.

You can read the rest of this, but you gotta buy the anniversary edition, y’all. Here’s a link to order this 60th anniversary of Shenandoah. You know you want to cop that, because it will be the LAST print issue of Shenandoah. After this issue, they will be going to a web format only.

So, support a sister. And support good literature. And support them old Black men.

The Shady Lady Crew

One of the reasons I am so excited about my four whole weeks to myself at the Vermont Studio Center is that, in addition to working on my poetry books, I’m hoping to sneak in some time to work on my fiction, too.

As I’ve told y’all, I’ve been an apprentice fiction writer for several years—fifteen to be exact—and up until I found out in February that I was short-listed for Best American Short Story 2009 for my story, “Easter Lilies in the West Room,” I was in the closet about it.

But I was caught up in memory this morning, thinking about how I first started writing fiction back in the day in graduate school in the MFA in Creative Writing program at the University of Alabama. A senior fiction professor, Alan Wier, told me that I had a great voice for fiction, and that I should transfer from the poetry concentration to the fiction concentration.

I was excited about what he told me, but I didn’t want to transfer from poetry; I wanted to write both fiction and poetry expertly, but the Director of Creative Writing (who was not Alan Wier) wouldn’t let us do that. Not only did she not let us take on two concentrations, she let us know—firmly—that it was impossible for anyone to succeed in professionally writing in two genres.

Of course, I was thinking, “Well, Langston Hughes succeeded in FOUR genres.” But since I was in a program that treated me like a Field Negro most of the time—don’t get me started on that; but in all fairness to the program, this was fifteen years ago, so hopefully they know how to treat Black folks like actual human beings now—I was definitely afraid to bring up a Black writer’s name as proof of what I could do.

So, I put my fiction aside, or I should say, I wrote fiction in secret. Then, in 2000, right around the time I published my first book of poetry, I published my very first short story, “Sister Lilith” in Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora. My story ended up being the first story in the book. I got four sentences in the Washington Post. And a sister got a check from Warner Books for the story. I was happy as a hog in slop.

Then I got another story published in a journal that next year and another accepted for publication in another anthology. Well, I was so naive that I thought I could finally come out of the closet about my  status as an official fiction writer.

A few years later, I was at an (unnamed) writers’ conference; I was there on financial aid (which is a great resume line). I was hanging around some of the ladies who were there on financial aid, too, only they were there in fiction, instead of poetry like me.  One day, we were kicking it at a coffee house.

It’s been years ago, but still, I remember where I was sitting at the table when I mentioned that I was a fiction writer as well as a poet, and all those women laughed at me. It was a multiracial crew, but even the colored women laughed at me. I remember it all, and the memory still hurts.

Y’all know how mean girls could be back in high school? Well, these grown women had those “mean girls” beat. I nearly cried, I felt so hurt, but the only thing that kept me from crying is that whenever I cry (from hurt feelings), a few seconds later, I get really, really angry. Then when I get angry—Shazam!

Trust me, you do not want to see me angry. I am a Leo woman: enough said.

Please don’t think I’m trying to portray myself as some sort of victim here. I’m five eight and a half and I do weight training, plus, I can poke somebody’s eyeballs out because I learned that from a self-defense class. I know how to take care of myself at all times, but even though it seemed like we all were just kicking it in a relaxed setting, that coffee house was actually a business setting. All these women were writers, too, so if I had gotten angry and gone off, I could have ruined my career past repairing.

Also, I didn’t pull out my figurative switchblade on those women because I have noticed that whenever I go off on mean females, instead of their taking my pay-back in an honorable fashion—since they started the cruelty in the first place—those women start crying, and suddenly, I look like a female Bigger Thomas. In other words I look like the villain, with my big, loud-talking, frightening, BLACK self.

This flip-the-script strategy is a shady-lady move, no doubt—but I must admit, brilliant. There’s a line in an Edward P. Jones short story—I’m paraphrasing here—where a character says that his mother told him that since God didn’t give women muscles, so He gave them the ability to cry on demand.

Ok?

For a few months after that scene, I thought about abandoning my fiction. My confidence evaporated, and whenever I would have problems with a story, that moment at the coffee shop would play in my mind, and I would say, “They were right to laugh. I don’t have what it takes to do this.”

The only reason I didn’t give up is because I talked to my mama, and she told me those women weren’t really laughing out of righteous derision, but rather, fear. Because the competition out there in the writing world is so stiff, if one more person gets added to the mix, she could get in the way of someone else’s hustle. So those women were just trying to knock out the competition early by messing up my head.

And besides, Mama asked, had any of those women read my fiction before they started telling me what I could or could not do? Did they give me kind advice—like real women would—about how to become a better fiction writer before ridiculing me for being an uppity poet who thought she could write in their genre?

“ ‘No’ to both of those questions?” Mama asked. “Then stop letting some low-down, jealous heifers get in your way before you even get started.  I bet they were all homely, too.”

Sidebar: Now that I think about it, all but one of those women were cute-challenged, and even the cute one was a bad dresser.

Anyway, despite what my mama said, still it’s taken me several years of prayer and psyching myself up to get past the trauma and shame of that coffeehouse moment when I was surrounded by women who I assumed would be supportive and instead, who drop-kicked me.

It’s taken me that time to regain the hope I had in 1995, when my professor told me how good my fiction voice was and that I shouldn’t set my prose to the side. And really, up until February, when I found out about the whole short-list thing for Best American, I didn’t know if I’d ever recapture my confidence.

Now, I’m not where I want to be, but at least I’m back to where I was before my feelings got hurt: consistent in my flow and believing I have a right to be doing what I’m doing. I don’t ever expect to be rich and famous, but really, the journey of writing (and enjoying that journey) is the whole point. So I’m not arrogant, but at least I’m hopeful these days.

So first, thank you, Mama, for reminding me that I am a Stone Cold Sister descended from a Stone Cold Sister. And Stone Cold Sisters don’t let anybody get in the way of their journeys.

And thank you, Professor Alan Wier for your kindness at the University of Alabama, back in 1995.  Thank you so much. I’ve run into you at conferences before and thanked you, but some things you just have to keep saying, because folks sometimes are unaware how they help you with kind words.

And finally, thank you, Shady Lady Crew of the Coffee House. You don’t know, either, how much you helped me in my progress as a fiction writer. You just don’t know.

Vermont, Are You Ready?

An aerial view of the Vermont Studio Center

On Saturday, I’m leaving on my long trip to the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont. They were sweet enough to give me the Kay Evans Fellowship in Poetry, and I am so grateful, because I need to focus on my writing full-time, for at least a month; I’ll be there from the middle of July until the middle of August working on my poetry book-in-progress, The Age of Phillis.

I’m driving up the East Coast to get to New England, which takes longer, but frankly, it’s a strange drive up through Missouri and Indiana and East. I remember last year, I stopped off at the mall in Indiana and there was not one Black person to be seen. I’m used to being the only person of color in a room—most Black college professors are used to this feeling.

But when I noticed people gawking at me, I realized I must be in an all-White town. Which was pretty spooky, because some of those towns aren’t just coincidentally all-White. Some towns are all White because they forced all the Black folks out. I read about that in Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America.

So this time, I’m driving through Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia and up, and I’ll not only see Black folks–cause you cannot suppress Negroes for too long in the South, ok?– but the drive will be prettier. And even though Vermont is nearly an all-White state—they claim to have a thousand Black people there, but I’m not sure I believe that—they are seriously friendly people, and they don’t stare at a sister. They have some home-training in New England, and I like that.

Well, home training unless you are, like, driving in Boston.  You know what they call those Boston drivers? “Massholes.”  I know that’s kinda mean, but as someone who has driven in Boston, that name is very, very accurate.

I plan on blogging regularly, like I’ve been doing, especially if anything sassy happens, but it’s a long drive up to Vermont, so I don’t know whether I can keep up with the blogging pace on a FOUR-DAY road trip.

So please stay patient with me for the next few days. I appreciate y’all, in advance.:-)

My birthday will take place while I’m there, so  if anyone wants to send me a birthday card in the third week of July (hint, hint!), feel free to write me at

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
C/O Vermont Studio Center
Post Office Box 613
Johnson, Vermont 05656

I should say, feel free to write me as long as you are not a creepy, crazy person with creepy crazy sentiments OR a married Negro who is looking to cheat on his long-suffering wife.

I don’t know what it is about a single Black woman over thirty-five that just screams “I Am A Desperate Tramp With No Pride Who Is Happy To Be Any Jenky Negro’s Side Piece” but these married men have been off the chain lately, with their inappropriate behavior toward me. I am trying not to cuss nobody out for insulting my womanhood, but I have been staying in constant prayer to keep my cool.

Anyway, wish me Bon Voyage, y’all! And also, please keep me in strong prayer and/or mojo to keep me safe on my travels!

Is There a Place In American Poetry For Hip Hop?

Some of y’all know that my poetry deals with African American music. Though I’m primarily known as a blues poet, all forms of Black music and how these affect our culture and who we are as a community have been a preoccupation of mine for a while.

An essay of mine, “Blues for Tar Baby: The Problem of Contemporary Black Hip Hop Poetry” was just published by The Kenyon Review Online. Here’s an excerpt from my piece:

“Because there always has been an exchange between black music and black poetry, the question one must ask is, when well meaning contemporary black poets use hip hop music as a point of departure and continue adding to the oral tradition in their own way, must they also continue to perpetuate the misogynist stereotypes (at worst) or deny or avoid female complexity or presence (at supposed best)? That is to say, must they engage in a battle only between men where women must be silent bystanders who sometimes get beat down in the process?”

You can read the rest of this piece at The Kenyon Review Online by clicking this link. Y’all know I always speak my mind, so when you finish reading,  let me know what you think by leaving comments here!

ETRT: Embarrassing The Race Television

On Sunday, I wasn’t watching the BET Music Awards, so I didn’t catch Chris Brown breaking down into real or fake tears. I didn’t even know the awards were on because I don’t have cable and I can’t get regular local TV stations either.

Sometimes I do watch some of my favorite programs on the computer, the day after they air. I do admit that I am an addict for The Young and the Restless. I like to see all those folks who can’t keep a marriage going for two full calendar years; it makes me feel better about my own single status.

But even when I had cable, I had stopped watching BET a long time ago. Some of the videos were just short of porn. Hey, a little porn is fine every now and then (if you’re grown), but I like to be intentional in my naughtiness, not caught unawares at 2:45 in the afternoon.

Plus, the BET awards show is a Tacky Negro Spectacle every year.  Remember last year, when Lil Wayne and Drake sang “I Wish I Could [insert expletive verb] Every Girl In The World” and they had all these little underage girl-children on stage with them, including Lil Wayne’s daughter?

That’s just wrong. And very, very strange.

I’m all for pushing the artistic envelope and I’m all for telling difficult truths about our community. However, how much you want to “get down” all the time, how much weed you smoke, how much liquor you drink, and how many women you have, who by the way you don’t consider “women” but rather “[insert expletive misogynist plural noun]”—well, those aren’t difficult truths. Those are jenky, tacky, Negro Abominations.

So as far as I’m concerned, BET should be called ETRT: Embarrassing The Race Television.

But on Monday, when I read the news that Chris Brown had started crying while trying to sing Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” I just got furious. Matter of fact, I’ve been so furious that I haven’t been able to write anything about it until now, what with all these Black folks—and Black women, in particular—defending that abusive boy, saying “he’s suffered enough and give him a chance.” That he’d “learned his lesson” and his life “shouldn’t be over just because of a mistake.”

Sometimes, some of my people make me want to weep, when I consider their lack of moral clarity and their racial double standards.

Or, make me want to, like, vomit.

I wonder if that had been a WHITE boy who had beat Rhianna so badly that her mouth filled up with blood and she nearly passed out, would so many Black folks be giving that WHITE boy so many chances.  Would we be saying—as one woman said on Facebook about Chris Brown—that that WHITE boy was a “poor thing”?

I’m all for second chances, but only after someone has paid the debt. I’ve said this before. And what debt has Chris Brown paid? Public humiliation? I got that in grade, junior high, and high school. Big fat whoa.

Community Service? I did that, too—along with my parents—in grade school, and on my own in graduate school. Community service should not be a punishment but a joy to participate in.

Chris Brown brutally assaulted someone. That is a crime. It is not a mistake. Forgetting to put on deodorant in the morning and not realizing it until you are at work and starting to get funky—that’s a mistake.

Chris Brown intentionally beat Rihanna brutally, and then denied accountability until he was facing jail. Which, by the way, he should have gone to.  Because if Chris Brown had beat a stranger down like that instead of someone he was having sex with on a regular basis, he would have gone to jail.

But because he was having sex with Rihanna, a young Black woman, and she couldn’t keep her mouth shut while they were arguing—the cardinal sin for any Black woman, don’t you know—he got a slap on the wrist. He did not get punched repeatedly in his face until his mouth filled up with blood, by the way.

He also received a featured place at the African American Break Fool Awards, because, once again, this Black community has thrown yet another Black woman under the bus, so we can save a Black man.

Further, we have shown that it is not possible to love Chris Brown and love Rihanna at the same time. Only Chris gets the love. And if we love Chris Brown, what we must do is love him with no conditions and total acceptance of his brutal behavior, as we have loved other Black men in the same way.

Here we have Chris Brown, a cute, cheeky Black man-in-the-making. Someone who, unless he goes into some intensive psychological therapy and starts to change who he hangs around and what kind of music he sings, will be beating down another young lady.

And before you start howling in protest, let me remind you that I am a trained battered woman’s counselor–that was part of my community service– and so I know that the recidivism rate for batterers is eighty percent.

What is recidivism, you ask? Well,  “recidivist” is the man who says he will never beat a woman again but who goes on to beat a woman again and again and again. Many recidivists end up killing women. And some of them are super-cute, too.

So, if the recidivism rate is eighty percent, that means, eight out of every ten men who say they won’t beat ever again, really will.

And why shouldn’t they do it again? It’s not like we have any sort of change in the scripts we give our young men—particularly in the Black community.

We still think that a brother can be hard, hang out with other hard young men, sing hard or morally bankrupt music—if he happens to be a singer—and never be held accountable for his actions. Yet somehow, we are convinced that our prayers that he be a better person will transform him.

It’s like when I was in high school and my mother suspected I might start messing around. I didn’t have a boyfriend, but she was just making sure. She pulled me aside one day.

“Honorée,” she said. “I’m through with raising children. Do you understand what I’m talking about? Do not come up in here pregnant.”

“Mama, I’m not even doing anything,” I said. I wondered if she could read my mind, though, because I was hoping to be doing something real soon, if I could just find somebody to do that something with.

“Well, when you think you might be doing something”—I tell you, my mother was a mind reader—“you let me know so we can make some plans for precautions. Because remember, prayer is not an effective form of birth control.”

Mama knew that we Black folks place a lot of silly worth in prayer alone, without any actual work to back it up, but she also knew that the Good Book tells us that “faith without works is dead.”

I have been trying to put my anger toward Chris Brown aside because he’s still essentially a child, after all, but I’m waiting to see what his works are.  In the meantime, I’m still mad. I admit it. And it’s going to take a long time for me to trust that he won’t do something abusive and brutal again, because I’ve seen women put their trust in men’s words (and not works) and seen those women end up dead.

And I wish the majority of the Black community would wait and see with Chris Brown, too, instead of congratulating him for his tears. Crying is not work. It is an automatic function of the tear ducts, ok?

As y’all know, I was podcasting on Sunday evening to celebrate Lucille Clifton’s birthday while the BET awards were on. I’ve talked about it too much this week, maybe. But I think that podcast is still with me because it was just a glorious artistic as well as spiritual moment that I shared with those women.

When I conduct a podcast, I never expect anyone to be listening, so I don’t get annoyed when I check the stats and see only a few—or even only one or two—people tuned in.

However, when I found out that a bunch of people—Black writers, to be exact—were looking at the BET awards instead of listening to me and several fabulous Black women talk about Lucille Clifton, I was just completely flabbergasted.

Look, I know my little podcast ain’t no national thing. And I know I will never be Michelle Norris on NPR.

But when I think about what Miss Lucille stood for—morally, artistically, and spiritually—it makes me sad that Black folks always say they want a better model to follow, they want change in this community, but they never put their money, time, or prayer where they should be.

Instead, Black folks are watching the BET awards. They’re complaining, sucking their teeth, and shaking their heads. Still, they’re watching.