On The Help, Viola Davis, And "Black Art" Vs. "Negro Respectability"

Tomorrow night, the Oscars take place, and film adaptation of The Help is expected to sweep the Oscars. I’ve already written about what I think about The Help, a movie I had hoped would go quietly into that good night. Instead, it’s ignited many debates about the lack of roles for Black actresses, Black art, and once again, class in the Black community, even if no one wants to call it “class.”

I don’t dispute that, if things are tough for light- and medium-brown-skinned African American actresses in Hollywood, they are terrible for darker-skinned sisters, for colorism is still alive and dropping its stinking poop all through American society.

I know that things are tough for Viola Davis to get a role. You’re not going to hear me disagree with that. But I am going to say that, “I can’t get a role” really translates into “I’m having a hard time paying my bills.” And so, those of us Black folks who have loudly criticized The Help have been cast as Bourgie Villains who stand between a Sister and her money.

And that’s not all. Not only do we Bourgie Villains want to keep a Sister from paying bills, we’re also embarrassed by her playing a maid on screen.

And that’s where I get mad.

See, my mama worked as a nanny back in college during the summers. And further, my granny–her mother–worked as a maid. And I took a job as a nanny once in college as well, but after I discovered that the White lady who hired me not only wanted me to see about her child but also, clean her 4000 square foot home (which was under construction and producing sawdust every ten minutes) while the little girl was sleeping, and I refused to do all that for five dollars an hour, I got fired. This is a true story.

We’re coming to the close of Black History Month, so let me say that this sort of Black class debate has taken place in many realms of Black American life for over one hundred years. For example, W.E.B. DuBois was about what I will call Negro Respectability, an African American remix of the European concept of “The Politics of Respectability.” Essentially, the “The Talented Tenth” theory set forth by DuBois was just an extension of his championing Negro Respectability.

And of course, inherent in those remixed “Politics of Respectability” notions were the following:  marriage is good; homosexuality is bad (if even acknowledged); patriarchy—the man as head of the family, etc.— is good; higher education is required; and above all, Negroes must exhibit gentile behavior that does not “transgress” the social norms at that time for upwardly mobile behavior. And they had to do all that while wearing tailored, tweed suits.

Booker T. Washington, on the other hand, was the Black Working Class champion. In my opinion, his views evidenced a different, “red dirt” form of Negro Respectability, one that was about the survival of Black folks who didn’t have access to higher education and so, they couldn’t dress up in tweed suits and teach at Historically Black Colleges.

Publicly, Washington was an apologist for segregation and cautioned Black political patience and Black hard work; he did not believe in pushing for racial equality. His famous “Atlanta Compromise” speech set off the first Official Black Beef in the history of America—between W.E.B. DuBois and Washington—and from that point, it was on between the Black Working Class and the Black Middle Class/Black Bourgeoisie.

Depending upon whom you ask, one of these Brothers emerged victorious.  Of course, DuBois won the intellectual battle. There is still plenty of shade thrown Washington’s way by African American scholars and academics, but Down South when I grew up, plenty working class Black mothers were still giving their male children “Booker T” for their two first names, too. That ought to tell you something right there, so really, it’s a tie.

There were contradictions in both men. W.E.B. DuBois was all for Negro Respectability to the point where he “fudged” parts of his early life when writing about them. Now, it’s clear that he was not heir to a great family legacy, but rather born in very humble circumstances, essentially fatherless and raised in a 19th century version of the “hood.”

Though publicly, Booker T. Washington was about digging in field dirt and skinning and grinning to white racists, the man built an institution of higher learning for the descendants of slaves—Tuskegee Institute which still stands today, now Tuskegee University—in the middle of racially terrorist Alabama, and unknown to his White benefactors, he was testing segregation laws in the court through his lawyers.

And so, things have never been clear about class in Black America and where  Black folks stand. For example, I’m conservative when it comes to certain things—like public language, public dress, belief in God, and manners—and very radical when it comes to others—like feminism, sex, anti-homophobia, kindness, and art.

Sidebar: Yes, I said, “Sex.”  But what I mean by “sex” is none of your business. That’s my conservative side coming back out.

As an artist—a writer—who has violated the “politics of respectability” in the service of my own art, I’m all for transgressing acceptable notions of behavior. I’ve talked about being a domestic violence survivor. I’ve talked about being a rape survivor. Heck, I even named my own father as my molester in print, much to my mother’s and family’s chagrin.

If anyone knows what it feels like to transgress acceptable behavior, I do.

Yet, my transgressions have occurred for a reason, and not to dissolve or exhibit my own pain.  I had counseling for the pain.  I write about my pain in my art not to examine the different kinds of lint in my own belly button, but to hopefully connect and heal a new generation of women, like Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Sonia Sanchez and Lucille Clifton did for me.

But transgression in art should be in service of something important and higher. Not in service of your financial hustle. Or in service of your ego. Or even, in service of the problems you had with your daddy who you still love like nobody knows and understands (even you).  If not, all you are accomplishing with your transgression is enacting a public tantrum and running with scissors.

So what does this all have to do with Viola Davis and The Help?

As a middle class/Black bourgeoisie African American woman, I would love to see more depictions of Black people like me on the silver screen, depictions that don’t make fun of or demonize Black middle class people, as we are wont to witness these days a la Tyler Perry.

That said, I’m a mixed class Black kid (and I’ve written about this before, too). Yes, my daddy was Black Bourgeoisie, but my mama was from the red dirt cotton fields of Georgia, and I’d also like to see more complex depictions of poor and working class Black folks, too.

For example, it would have been nice to have seen one Black man in The Help who stood up for a Black woman instead only a Brother like Minny’s abusive husband, or another who left Abilene to fend for herself in the middle of the street during a burgeoning race riot.

I grew up with working class Black men who would die for the dignity and honor of a Black woman, like my uncles. I believe my mother’s story of the time that a White man came to the house one day and cursed in front of my grandmother. When he wouldn’t apologize, my papa Charlie told his son to get his gun.  This was in the late 1940s when such an act in central Georgia could get him and possibly his entire family killed. And by the way, that White man got in his car and drove on home.

And I saw working class Black women, like my granny, who would cuss somebody like a sailor if they pissed her off, but only Monday through Saturday.  (She was the cusser in the family, not Grandpa Charlie.) On Sunday, she was a dressed up, do-right acting, child of God.

But yes, I saw some in the outside community—who shall remain nameless—who would beat a woman in the middle of the street and mothers who abandoned their children to go Up North.  I’ve seen much. I’d like to see that same “much” in films about working class Black people. I’d like to see some complexity.

I’m not upset with a “Black maid movie.” I’ve seen a few I’ve loved, including A Long Walk Home starring Sissy Spacek and Whoopi Goldberg. But that movie featured a Black woman who had a rich life outside of her White folk’s kitchens. The Help does not. And I do not believe that Viola Davis, a Black woman born in the early 1960s who is classically trained at Julliard, can believe what she said at the NAACP Image Awards, that Kathryn Stockett (the author of the book the movie is based on) told “the truth.” Or that she wrote “art.”

Child, please.

What bothers me most, is that Viola Davis is singing that well-worn spiritual of “I’m A Black Artist And I Have A Right To Work” in order to shut down criticism of her acting in The Help, like with Tavis Smiley  on his show. And now, her “artistic choices” are being defended as transgressing Black Middle-Class values by others, instead of keeping on the real question.

And I’ll ask it: Why is it that we Black folks must keep seeing these flat, one-dimensional depictions of Black people–supposedly ourselves– in the movies? Is this really the best Hollywood can do?

Sure, I enjoy having a reasonably good FICO score as much as the next Sister. But it’s not that I need to see heroes or doctors or lawyers or Tuskegee Airmen as opposed to drug dealers or absent fathers or crack addicted sex-workers–or maids.

No, what I need is to see some real Black folks and real stories–whomever is on the screen.

Sidebar: And while we’re at talking about what I need, I could do without that sweeping, emotionally manipulative soundtrack that reminds me of the Fisk Jubilee Singers in concert whenever I see Black folks on screen, too. Geez Louise in Heaven.

I’m not trying to knock Viola Davis’s hustle, but in the final analysis, it is a hustle. Or maybe, in the final analysis, it’s not a hustle, depending on which Black person in whichever socio-economic class that you ask.

But you cannot tell me in the ultimate final analysis that The Help is complex, good Black art simply because a complex Black artist acted in it.  Sometimes, complex artists of whatever complexion make bad art. (I know I have.) And you cannot tell me that The Help is the best movie that any filmmaker, Black or White, could have made on working class Black life.

I think that both W.E.B. and Booker T. would agree with me on that.

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Happy Birthday, W.E.B. DuBois!

W.E.B. DuBois

Thank you to fabulous historian, Dr. Blair Kelley for reminding me that today is the birthday of W.E.B. DuBois! He was born on February 23 in 1868.

Sidebar: Please forgive me for posting so late in the day. In my defense, y’all, last night, I came down with Some Kind of The Yucky Ick. I’m aching from my fingertips to the soles of my feet.  But I still have five deadlines between now and next Tuesday, so send a Sister some good, energetic, healing mojo, please.

Anyway, I just LOVE me some William Edward Burghardt DuBois, y’all! I own both volumes of his biography, written by David Levering Lewis. He was a genius, an activist, and the Ultimate Race Man Extraordinaire. DuBois was the founder and secretary of the Niagara Movement and one of the founders of the NAACP. Not only that, most scholars agree that he is the father of modern African American studies, even though they didn’t call it that back then.

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W.E.B. DuBois in top hat. (I love this picture!)

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Click here to read a condensed biography of DuBois on Wikipedia.

His Harvard University dissertation, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870 , which was later published as a book, still stands as a major, germinal text on the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Click here to read the entire book for free online or download to Kindle.

Further, wherever you turn in African American Studies, you must encounter W.E.B. Dubois’s The Souls of Black Folk. Studying Social Work as it relates to Black folk? Have to read that book. Black politics? Gotta read it. And Black literature, Black psychology, Black history–even Black music. Here’s a link to read the entire text for free online:

But there are two texts by DuBois that I hold especially beloved. The first is his theory of Double Consciousness (contained in The Souls of Black Folk), which explains why Black folks have to remain both constantly aware of the dominant, European American culture and their own African American culture as well:

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It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

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And then, there is “Criteria of Negro Art.” Like The Souls of Black Folk, I come back to it time and again to discover how I really feel about Black cultural and artistic production. DuBois states:

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Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.

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Sometimes, I agree with him. And sometimes, I really, really don’t. I go back and forth, arguing with Dr. DuBois in my mind–as if I could tangle with him intellectually, when no one can! But I do read this essay at least once a year. (Click here to read it for free online, and be changed forever, okay?)

Like I said, W.E.B. DuBois was and is The Man. That’s why there’s even a DuBois Institute at Harvard University named after him. You can click here to read more about it.

So, Happy Birthday, Dr. DuBois! And thank you so much. You remain fabulous–and relevant– throughout these one hundred and forty-four years.

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Lucille Clifton: Spell/Woman/Poet

Anybody who knows even a little bit about me knows that Lucille Clifton is my absolute favorite poet in the world. That might have something to do with my loving her so much—as in present tense, even though she joined the ancestors two years ago today. She was my friend and my beloved mentor, a real gift to me in this world and, I believe, in the next.

But it’s one of those strange things. Do I love Miss Lucille (as I called her) so much because her poems were so good or are the poems so good because I love her so much? Or, would I have loved her anyway, even without the poems?

I don’t know and guess what?  The thought of living in a world where Lucille Clifton did not create poems for me to read is a frightening brain moment. So let’s move on before I linger there.

I celebrate Miss Lucille three times a year now. I celebrate her on February 13, the day she passed on to the ancestors who lived with her in her spirit and in her poems, and that is understandably a really sad day for me. But then, I celebrate her again on Mother’s Day, because she had six of her own children whom she adored and I considered her a second mother. And then, I celebrate her one more time on June 27, her birthday, which is seriously happy occasion, of course.

I just love to celebrate Miss Lucille—and celebrate with her!

Those who know her poetry know that I’m referencing one of her two most famous poems when I say “celebrate.” Here’s a link for those of you who don’t know that poem. Read it and–I hope–become deeper in your soul. There’s audio, too! 

And here some other great Miss Lucille extras:

A biography of her on the Poetry Foundation website.

“Homage to my hips”, her other most famous poem. All sisters with glorious, big booties need to read this poem at least once a year.

Here’s a podcast I did almost two years ago with a circle of Black women to celebrate Miss Lucille’s birthday. This is a special podcast, including Miss Lucille’s firstborn child, Sidney, and National Book Award winner Nikki Finney. (When you click the link, go to “Episode 8” to begin listening!)

And here’s a wonderful video of Miss Lucille and Quincy Troupe, one of the great poets of the Black Arts Movement, and just a Down By Law Cool Brother as well.

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Lucille Clifton with Quincy Troupe, Conversation, 21 May 1996 from Lannan Foundation on Vimeo.

.Enjoy! And celebrate. Miss Lucille is up in Heaven poeming with the ancestors and having a good old time with her husband, Mr. Fred, and two of her children who passed before her.

And she’s eating hot dogs, which she absolutely loved. And I just know she is looking very cute in a really colorful blouse, because she sure could wear an outfit. I miss her so much, still, but I hope if I’m good down here, I’ll be able to join her one day in Heaven. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, for real.

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Rest In Peace, Whitney. Rest, My Girlhood

File:Whitney Houston1985.jpgThis is not a blog post for hits. This is just a blog post for me and my grief.  Please excuse what I’m sure seems like self-indulgence. It is self-indulgence. I admit it.

But I have to talk, because I just can’t even believe it. I just can’t believe Whitney is gone. I don’t have to give her last name. Those of us Americans who are a particular age all know her by her first name, as our friend, as our sister. She’s always been just Whitney.

I first heard her sing in 1985 when I was seventeen years old. I was an emotionally messy, young girl and it was a very messy year.

I was getting over my first real relationship—y’all know what I mean—in which I had fallen in love and been made a a royal fool. Sometimes, I look back and still can’t believe I was that stupid. On top of that, my father was dying. I was living in Atlanta, where my mother and sister and I had moved when my parents separated. Then Daddy was diagnosed with terminal heart disease and he moved from North Carolina down to Atlanta with us, a move that I greatly resented.

There were ugly scenes and screaming between Mama and me, but my father arrived in Atlanta the fall of 1984, frail and diminished. My mother tried to explain to me the meaning of wedding vows, that she had stood up before God and a justice of the peace with this man. And this man. A man who’d been so vigorously cruel , who had ruled my world—the world of my mother and my sisters–was husked down to a harmless nothing. You would have thought I would have been glad, but instead, somehow I was even angrier.

Despite the screaming, my mother and I remained extremely close and so that winter, whenever she woke in the middle of the night to go to the hospital, following the ambulance that carried Daddy, I would go with her. And we would listen to the radio.

We’d travel the interstate in that old white car with the blue seats, watching the city lights and listening to Whitney, who had released her first single on her first album. Whenever I hear “You Give Good Love,” even now, I think about my mama and daddy. I think about how she stayed a good woman for him until the end, despite how he’d disappointed us all– and even worse. And there was a feeling I had, of hope and melancholy at the same time. Those radio nights gave me a lifeline I can’t explain. Mama’s favorite song off that album was, “Saving All My Love.” The sound of her raspy Filtered-Kools Alto on those first words made me smile.

“It’s not very easy, living all alone.”

Daddy died that summer, but there were Whitney-sounds to comfort me past the grief and confusion his death presented. I turned eighteen and entered one of the worst times of my life, an ugly, downward time that I never thought I would live through. Then, I looked up ten years later and I was finally starting to come out of it, only to discover that Whitney had entered the worst of it.

It never seemed to get better for her, though I knew it would. I just knew it. It couldn’t end. Not for Whitney.

Tonight talking to Kim, my oldest friend in the world and a monument of my childhood, I reminisced about what Whitney meant to me. She was that big sister I idolized. Tall, smoothly brown, otherworldly pretty, popular, talented. She was who I wanted to be when I grew up.

That I grew up and realized Whitney wasn’t perfect has bothered me over the years more than my own relatives’ frailties. More than I wanted to admit to myself, which is why I tried to forget about her. I was so disappointed in her, though somehow, I never could give her the chance to be human even though I wanted people to give me that same chance.

But every once in a while, on the phone with Mama, she would say, “Remember when she hit that note in ‘I’ll always love you’? That girl sure knew she could sing.” And then, “I just can’t understand what happened.”

Whitney was supposed to be perfect. I mean, look at the pictures. Look at her beauty. Even when it diminished, it was still there, different but defiant. Listen to the records even when That Voice changed. She was supposed to be my guide through my womanhood, as she had been through my girlhood.

And now my girlhood is over.

Every time someone has passed in these two years, I’ve said it. My childhood is over. My girlhood is over. But somehow, I thought I could always get it back, no matter what looking in the mirror told me. The same way Whitney was going to get That Voice back.  She was going to return to me, and bring with her what I’d lost. What we’d both lost.

I can say it now. I loved her. I still do. It didn’t matter that I never really knew her. I felt like I did. We all felt that way. And I wished I had given her another chance.

But now, Whitney’s gone, whether I want to believe it or not. Childhood is over. Girlhood is over, finally, and for good. I guess, at least I still have the songs. And my memories of the Atlanta skyline.

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This Is For the Lover In You: Lots of FREE Black Literary Swag!

Booker T. Washington

Not only is February Black History Month/Afropalooza, it also contains Valentine’s Day, the favorite day for people who love to cuddle and kiss and guess who else? People who like to read. And there is no easier and greater way to get next to your favorite Black Library Girl (or Guy) on Valentine’s Day than to get her a book.

Sidebar: Jewelry counts, too, I will not lie. No, money can’t buy you real love, but you can sure put some on layaway with a reasonably priced gift from Tiffany’s.

But guess what? If you don’t have large or even medium-sized money, being smart gets you plenty of cool points with a smart woman. And a smart man will know I love books because in order for me to want a man romantically, he’s got to love books, too.

Call me classist or whatever you want to call me, just don’t call me if you don’t like to read.  Assume that I don’t have a telephone—landline or mobile– if you are not literate.

I don’t care how fine you are. You gets no you-know-what round these parts if you don’t read books. And Dr. Seuss does not count, okay, so get yourself out of the children’s section of the bookstore, because not only do you need to step up your literacy game, you’re looking a little creepy reading Hop on Pop unless you’ve got a toddler attached to your hip.  I’m trying to tell you what I know.

Anyway, I’m about to hook you up with some FREE Black History Month literary swag to please your nerdy sweetie! Here’s how.

Many nerds nowadays (of any complexion or background) own a reading device, like a Kindle, Nook, or a combo Tablet/RD like an Ipad. You can sneak and download these books (below) for your sweetie on her RD yourself. If not, just get up early the morning of Valentine’s Day and send your sweetie an email with all the links (below). Then he or she can download it all in under five minutes. It’s so easy!

Below are some of the links to get some of my favorite classic Black books.

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Amazon Kindle

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs

Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson

Iola Leroy Shadows Lifted by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

The Narrative of Sojouner Truth

Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; or the escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery by Ellen Craft

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Ibook/IPad

Collected Articles of Frederick Douglass

The Complete Poems of Paul Lawrence Dunbar 

Fifty Years and Other Poems by James Weldon Johnson

Mule Bone by Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes

Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral  By Phillis Wheatley

The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States by Ida B. Wells Barnett

Our Nig, or Sketches From the Life of a Free Black by Harriet Wilson

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Barnes and Noble Nook

An African Treasury by Langston Hughes

Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral by Jessie Fauset

Harlem Shadows by Claude McKay

Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee

Meditations From the Pen of Mrs. Maria Stewart

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And just as a little extra something, here’s one of my favorite songs from back in the day by Shalamar. This is the best song, ever. This is on my Personal Love Mixtape, y’all.

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Why I'm No Longer A Black Poet

Robert Hayden

“Why I’m No Longer A Black Poet”

………by Reginald Dwayne Betts, ………PR Guest Blogger

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Forgetting is the gift to folks who don’t mind circling the same wagon, year after year, decade after decade. It seems that is the case for black poetry in America, this circling of the wagon, a perpetual seeking of place and definition. How one manages racial identity in these fifty states has become something that can always be mined for content and controversy.

I’m thinking about Robert Hayden and about his position on the infamous question, “Am I a poet, or am I a black poet?”—that “to be or not to be” used to bludgeon African-American men and women who write in America.  It’s what prompted the 1966 Black Writers Conference at Fisk University, in Nashville, Tennessee; it was an historic gathering of writers, civil rights workers, and others to discuss the image of the Negro in literature.

At the Conference, the poet Robert Hayden remarked, “Let’s quit saying we’re black writers writing to black folks—it has been given importance it should not have.” His remarks preceded those of Melvin Tolson, who famously went on to proclaim, “I’m a black poet, an African American poet, a Negro poet. I’m no accident – and I don’t give a tinker’s damn what you think.”

This contentious encounter is all recorded in the June 1966 issue of Black Digest, and if you aren’t careful, after reading the account of this encounter, you might walk away thinking that Hayden’s and Tolson’s poetics were a world apart. But read a bit of Tolson’s Libretto for the Republic of Liberia and you will find Tolson doing what Hayden did time and again: write about black folks with a serious sense of wordplay, with panache. Tolson’s poetry makes this public spat over the question all the more interesting, and all the more redundant.

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Melvin Tolson

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The backstory to this is everything Robert Hayden’s writing has taught me: Nat Turner, the Amistad Mutiny, all those figures from the (Detroit) Paradise Valley series, Bessie Smith, the meticulous emotional turmoil that was the Middle Passage, Paul Robeson – all names and historical moments that are but a sample of what I found early on in his verse. I think that I benefited from having read Hayden before I had any real idea that I wanted to be a poet, because at that time I read him alongside Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, Langston Hughes, Lucy Terry and countless others, including the anonymous authors of the Spirituals and Work Songs, without yet having a social or historical context.

There is no one that could walk away from the Hayden’s Collected Poems not knowing these poems were soaked in what it meant to be black in America from slavery to beyond the 1960s. Hayden was the guy with narratives, history, myth. He dropped science in a way that the other poets I read just weren’t.

At this point, it’s almost a waste to go into comparisons between Hayden and poets of the Black Arts Movement. Any such comparison would be more about personality, less about poem. And at the end of the day, Hayden maintained an exquisite balance in his poetry, work that didn’t seek to demonize or make heroic the figures that found their way into those poems.  Hayden sought less to grant historic black figures anything (be it humanity or heroism) and more to carve a truth out of words that didn’t exist, exactly that way, before they were written. When I first learned of the Fisk Conference controversy, of Hayden’s not wanting to be referred to as a “black” poet, I hadn’t thought about how naming can be akin to handcuffing.  And frankly, I left that issue alone. I wanted to be black because I already had been black as a failure and so I wanted to be black as a success.

For me, being black, wanting to be a writer, wanting to engage in the world larger than my block and my fears, have been about using color as the first filter. I was the kid who wanted to know why we read Shakespeare in high school and not Chinua Achebe, the kid who read the Stolen Legacy and waxed poetic about how Aristotelian thought was stolen from a library in Egypt. My mind was the constant playing of Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back—and I had yet to hear the album.

The thing is, you get older. And when I did, I recognized how racial solidarity addled my brain. My obsession with race became more important than the history I didn’t know.

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Langston Hughes

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In “The Negro and the Racial Mountain,” (1926) published in The Nation, Langston Hughes did not argue for a singular blackness, but I read it that way, missing the part where he wrote, “If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either.” No, I was stuck on his chastising Countée Cullen for his desire not to be known as a “Negro poet,” his wanting to be brave where Cullen seemed so awkwardly afraid of his blackness.

This craving worked as gift and detriment for me. And it was silly.  At the time, I viewed black poetry—all black literature—as a kind of service literature. The problem, of course, is that the best of black literature is far more than service, even when the writers are completely devoted to a kind of service. Ultimately, when I am moved to shirk racial symbolism, it’s partly because no one wanted my wearing “race” when I ran wild in the streets, and partly because there is a little dishonesty in the ordeal–as the idea of blackness too often replaces the fact of blackness. And so, a group of black writers who scrape with words to create a world gets reduced to: “X confronts his black identity (or decides to abandon it).”

What has been lost as I enter into present, public conversations about black literature is the myriad ways of conveying blackness. Conversations about “blackness” always overshadow the elements, the sounds, the nuance, the slang and vibrancy that reduce regional distinctions in African America to places where words become worlds. In having discussions about what it means to be a black poet, I forget that my moms went to work at four every morning without having to name herself “black” anything. That my folks, all of them, lived fully in their black skins, and, when need be, discussed racism and dealt with it—but they needed no obsession with adjectives. None of my friends who aren’t writers or reading the books about “post black” use these terms, or talk about them. They talk about the cost of daycare, of healthcare, of rent – and I imagine there is a poet singing his songs right now who only will be noticed for writing “black”—or being black while writing.

All of this returns me to Robert Hayden, whose “blackness” was called into question because he, like Cullen, didn’t want to be relegated to a literary ghetto (like today’s black literature section in popular bookstores). I’ve come to realize that black poets’ racial solidarity has become tantamount to another restraint: our thinking about black poetry has been reduced to how and why we represent racial issues—and our commitment to language has been allowed to fall slack. We will not call it service literature, but we do want it to serve.

I have found access within the black literary community and felt at home, but that community sometimes has looked askance at me when I’ve admitted to feeling at home at largely white institutions, too. As the saying goes, I am “the Negro of the moment.”—And yes, there is a trace of truth to this saying, but the idea behind it is corrupt and corrupting. Am I to understand the entire history of literature and black folks in America as merely a succession of chosen Negroes?

What is apparent is that the erasing of history that goes on is layered and complex. If you aren’t careful someone will dress you in a beret and an Afro pick before your first good line is written, or they will have you referring to your complexion as a mere coincidence.  It’s all from the same bag, a not-so subtle-way to erase the nuance out of you.

Sometimes the black community that raised me is a far cry from the community represented in the work I read, often the work I write. Sadly, many of the people who are my “black” peers display an overwhelming gap in information. But our poems dance. They dance before a crowd that has no sense of literary tradition. (Or does). They dance before those most concerned (if concerned at all) with what moves them, and little else.

And at a time when we black poets must demand our presence be acknowledged, must scrap and badger with decision makers and power holders of largely white institutions, we have survived, in large part, due to racial solidarity.  Yet, this same solidarity has now lead to a climate where to criticize the work of another black writer is tantamount to racial treason.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe these aren’t real issues issue at all.

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I want to say I stopped being a black poet when I discovered that black poets had the audacity to question Robert Hayden’s authenticity—but the truth is that it is deeper than that. The truth is I have found myself longing to be fuller in my own skin, to dismiss the rhetoric that surrounds what it means to be a black poet and find a way to write a poetry that better reflects the sounds I hear in my sleep, the sounds I hear when I walk down the streets that are most familiar with me – and the sounds that I hear when I am in a strange place filled with black faces.

At the Fisk Conference, Robert Hayden ended his speech by saying the blackest thing ever said at an academic conference (at least to me). Speaking to those whom he expected to disagree with him, Hayden remarked, “Baby, that’s your problem, not mine.”

With that statement, he took it back to where the truth always exists: don’t listen to what a person calls him- or herself, just listen to what is said when the guards are down. And the proof is always in the poems, because if your guards aren’t down when you go to that necessary place, then you were lying before you even started.

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Reginald Dwayne Betts is a husband and father of two sons. His memoir, A Question of Freedom (Avery/Penguin 2009), won the NAACP Image Award for Nonfiction, and his collection of poetry, Shahid Reads His Own Palm (Alice James Books, 2010), was awarded fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, the Open Society Institute, Bread Loaf Writers’ Workshop and Warren Wilson College. As a poet, essayist and national spokesperson for the Campaign for Youth Justice, Betts writes and lectures about the impact of mass incarceration on American society.

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This Bridge Called My Back: The Mothers, The Daughters

Dear Readers:

I am so pleased to welcome my second guest blogger, Asha French! She is a brilliant poet and literary critic.

Because we’re both Black feminists, for her first post, I asked Asha to focus on some aspect of the history of feminism for Black History Month. She decided to write on The Bridge Called My Back.

No, this is not a “Black book,” per se, but rather a multicultural collection of writings by Native American, Latina, Chicana, and African American feminists. But this is my blog, so I get to “Afropalooza” the rules for Black History Month!  (Remember, it’s a verb as well as a noun!)

I know you will love Asha’s writing as much as I do!

Amor et Pax,

Honorée

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This Bridge, My Mother

……..by Asha French

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This Bridge Called My Back, edited by Cherrie Morega and Gloria Anzuldua, is one of the most cited feminist texts by women of color, best known for its incorporation of multiple voices: scholars, poets, artists, and home-grown activists are given equal weight in this book that is more concerned with truth than jargon. For many of the writers, mothering is a bridge between women, the planks that connect the world that is to the world that should be.

Although mothering is not the central concern of the collection, authors trace the roots of their feminisms through their motherliness, to the first women to touch American soil, the first to experience the matrixes of classism, racism, and sexism that existed long before their forced or chosen migrations.  They write about the tensions of this mothering bridge– the ways their mothers sometimes perpetuated sexism by preparing their daughters for the world as it was– but they also write about the tools their mothers gave them to imagine and shape the world as it should be. Last year marked the thirtieth anniversary of the original publication of This Bridge. It was also the thirtieth year since I made a bridge of my mother, and a little over a year has passed since my daughter made a bridge of me.

In reading the pages of This Bridge, I saw my mother clearly for the first time. For years, I have been content with my distortions, content to remember her wild-eyed and belt swinging, her full lips pursed in a thin, grim line. I was content to remember her most frequent admonition to my brothers and me, “You will respect me in my house” and the closed door when I did not. I’d traced my self-loathing to her disciplinary approach, the one that generations of mothers adopted to prepare their children to survive a racist America. She was the daughter and granddaughter of women who’d plucked switches from branches that could potentially bear black bodies. Born in the generation of couch therapy and Dr. Spock, I felt compelled to judge them all.

I wasn’t alone in Mama-blaming. Since Patrick Moynihan’s first invitation, mama-bashing has been the response to decontextualized, black “pathology.” It has been the conditioned response of pundits, intellectuals, and trained psychotherapists. (“Moynihan and Freud walk into a bar…”). Mothers are even blamed under the pretense of absent father blaming (see all of the anti-single mother campaigns). It is always easier to blame Mama than to look at the systems of oppression that created her.

This Bridge Called My Back gave me that vantage point- a way to see my mother as a connection—a vertical line connecting her to systems of class, gender, and racial oppression; a horizontal line connecting her to her generations, past and future.

In “La Guera,” Cherrie Moraga writes about the importance of these lines in the development of her own identity. She remembers her mother’s life of labor, that her mother was “pulled out of school at the ages of five, seven, nine, and eleven to work in the fields,” and that she “[walked] home alone at 3 a.m., only to turn all of her salary and tips over to her mother, who was pregnant again” (24).

Max Wolf Valerio writes about the cultural clashes she had with her mother, who spoke and lived Blackfoot while she was westernized in the white school. She remembered dismissing her mother’s story about a visiting spirit, “I say, ‘My, that’s something weird.’ Weird?… A shadow flits across my mother’s eyes… only a non-Indian would say that.” (43).

Aurora Levins Morales remembers the advice that her grandmother, aunt, and great aunts gave her about sex and men. They made sex something profane, something that a woman had to “lie down” and bear, “because there’s no escape.” She writes, “And yet, I tell you, I love those women for facing up to the ugliness there. No romance, no roses and moonlight and pure love. You say pure love to one of these women and they snort and ask you what the man has between his legs and is it pure?” (54).

Merle Woo, in “Letter to Ma,” walks us through the steps to see her mother as a third world woman in America, not totally determined by her social conditions, but also not disaffected by them. She acknowledges her mother’s own sexism, interrogates her mother’s distrust of feminism, and thanks her for giving her the resources she has to live life on her own terms, “Because of your life, because of the physical security you have given me… I saw myself as having worth; now that I begin to love myself more, see our potential, and fight for just that kind of social change that will affirm me, my race, my sex, my heritage. And while I affirm myself, Ma, I affirm you” (157).

In all of these examples and others, I recognize the woman who loved me enough to raise me, give me pieces of her story and trust my discernment to choose which parts are empowering, which parts cautionary.

Like Moraga, I recognize my mother’s life of labor to which she at times felt both beholden and disconnected. She was just two generations removed from forced labor, only the third generation in her family of women who actually had legal rights to their children (although the prison industrial complex also challenges those).

Like Valerio, I remember the moments in which the cultural gaps were painfully clear between my mother and me, though we were just one generation apart. She’d grown up in the generation of racial uplift, in which assimilation was a defense against denied humanity. I’d grown up in the post- Black Aesthetic Movement, Afrocentric era and, emboldened as I was by the Swahili name she’d given me, declared my right to “natural” hair in the fifth grade.

Like Morales, I remember and appreciate much of the gendered advice that was reflective of her upbringing and experiences with men.  I replay her cryptic counsel my freshman year, when a boyfriend denied me the option of consent– “You can’t play with fire and not get burned.” I know now that rape culture creates perpetrators and ministers of its gospel. I no longer condemn her for her ordination.

Like Woo, I am still grateful for the opportunities my mother afforded me, for the choices she made to prepare me for the world she knew. I have a better appreciation for her complexity. My mother taught me the power of the written word; although a wrong look could send her to the belt closet, I was never punished for the content of the letters I slipped under her door.

She is the woman who sometimes silenced me, but also told me to speak up when I dared to defy her authority. She was open palm to face and gentle, back hand to a warm forehead. I believe that she has always tried to be her best self. She taught me to dream, to question, to wonder, to read.

My mother doesn’t see herself in my feminism, but I know it is her face I have always been chasing. Her model of grown womanhood is a dress I still can’t fit, but I wear it anyway, squaring my shoulders to carry its weight.

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Asha French is a poet and literary critic. She holds degrees from Howard University and Indiana University and currently, she is a Ph.D. candidate at Emory University.

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Happy Birthday, Langston Hughes!

Today, I want to say Happy Birthday to Mr. Langston Hughes. I think there’s something very appropriate about his birthday starting off Black History Month/Afropalooza and I hope you do, too.

Langston Hughes is just The Man.  And really, that’s what this blog post is about, how fabulous Mr. Hughes was/is.  This is Black History Month, yes, but this also is a blog for grown people who I hope can do their own reading. But I will say that Langston Hughes—along with Zora Neale Hurston, who I must get to sometime during the course of this month—is the most well known creative writer of the Harlem Renaissance.

To read about the Harlem Renaissance as a literary movement that produced several geniuses—or, I should say, several geniuses produced the Harlem Renaissance—click here.

Because I’m doing a bit of writing on the Harlem Renaissance for my real job, I’m going to focus on some of the figures of that time in the next twenty-eight days. Did you know this is leap year? Not only is Black History Month my favorite month, but leap years are my favorite years because I get one extra day to Afropalooza!

Sidebar: Yes, Afropalooza is both a verb and a noun. When I make up words, they are multifunctional, like pig meat grease. Tell me something.

And if you want to read an extensive biography of him and the gajillion books Mr. Hughes published—I told you he was The Man—please click here. This is the best bio I’ve read of him so far.  It’s really excellent.

So let’s get to why I love Langston Hughes so much.

Like many African Americans of my generation, I learned to recite poetry by memorizing Langston Hughes’s poetry as a child in elementary school. I attended Fayetteville Street Elementary in Durham, North Carolina, a bastion of Black History in its own right.  North Carolina Central University was there—formerly North Carolina College at Durham—and the wealthy Spaldings lived in Durham; they were the founders (in 1898) of the first African American life insurance company, North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance. I was in a Brownie troupe with one of the Spalding descendants; my mother was extremely proud of telling people that, too, much to my embarrassment.

And I know that some of my Black readers know at least one Langston Hughes poem by heart. Who can forget “Mother to Son,” the favorite poem of female talent show contestants at predominately African American high schools and colleges across this country? All I need is to recite the first five words, and many Black folks can recite the next eight words.

Well, son, I’ll tell you: Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

And I don’t know one Black poet who doesn’t know “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” I can’t recite by memory the entire poem, but I bet you any Black poet can tell you the last lines of the poem.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

By the way, it’s because of Langston Hughes that I developed a fondness for colons in my poetry! I just love a colon in a poem. It’s really cute on the page, don’t you know.

To honor Mr. Langston Hughes Otherwise Known As The Man, I am posting my favorite ever poem by him.  The poem is called “The Weary Blues” and it’s the title of Mr. Hughes first published book.

I could tell you why I love it, but then again, I can’t. I just do. And I don’t want to find reasons. It’s like loving a person. It’s just a feeling inside, and I don’t care if no one else approves. That’s that real love.

And guess what?  I found out that I can actually purchase “The Weary Blues” collaboration of Langston Hughes and Charles Mingus! You know I cannot live any longer without owning that collaboration. My life will not be complete without it.  I’m ordering it today.

Here’s a link to podcast about the Hughes/Mingus collaboration. And here’s the poem below.

The Weary Blues

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Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
……I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
……He did a lazy sway . . .
……He did a lazy sway . . .
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
……O Blues!
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
……Sweet Blues!
Coming from a black man’s soul.
……O Blues!
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan–
……“Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
…….Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
…….I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
…….And put ma troubles on the shelf.”

Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more–
……“I got the Weary Blues
…….And I can’t be satisfied.
…….Got the Weary Blues
…….And can’t be satisfied–
…….I ain’t happy no mo’
…….And I wish that I had died.”
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.

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