Teachable Racial Moment: A Black History Lesson Behind “Son of a Bitch”

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I’m sure by now many (if not most) of us have heard about the President of this country calling football player Colin Kaepernick a “son of a bitch” at a political rally in Alabama. As I looked at the Twitter feeds of some of the President’s supporters, many of them said, “President Trump didn’t call out Kaepernick’s name. He only said, ‘someone who kneels during the National Anthem.’”

As the kids say, let’s keep it one hundred, shall we?

We all knew to whom the President was referring when he referenced a “son of a bitch” kneeling. Because Brother Kaepernick was the one who started the kneeling protests in the first place.

But let’s look at the term, “Son of a bitch.” As all of us know, it is a slur that has animalistic implications. A “bitch” is a female dog. Thus, a “son of a bitch” is the child of a female dog.

“Son of a bitch” has obvious, gendered implications as well. In fact, the insult is less about the son and more about the mother who established lineage. The mother must the original animal to create another animal.

Now, calling somebody the son of a female dog is always an insult to anyone of any racial or cultural background–I feel safe in making that blanket statement–but there is a peculiar, racialized, historical, and legal context to using this term to describe the mother of black person.

Jennifer L. Morgan, author of Laboring Women: Reproduction and New World Slavery, has written and lectured about the change of patriarchal laws in the (then-colony) of Virginia in 1662. Before that time, English common law had established that a child took on the status of his or her father.  That meant that biracial children of free, white fathers and enslaved, black mothers could, conceivably, be free born.

In 1655, a biracial woman in Virginia named Elizabeth Key Grinstead sued for her freedom based upon, among other things, English common law. Her father was a white man, and she wanted to make sure that her free lineage was established for her own children. She won that suit, but seven years later, the colony of Virginia passed a law called Partus Sequitur Ventrem, which made biracial children of enslaved black mothers permanently enslaved.

Here’s where it gets even worse.

The term Partus Sequitur Ventrum is a barnyard term, used for animals. It literally means, “Offspring Follows Belly.” Thus, black women were legally animalized during slavery. And maybe this animalistic status of black women is why, while writing on the difference between black and white in Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson accused black women of engaging in bestiality with great apes:

The first difference which strikes us is that of colour…And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species. The circumstance of superior beauty, is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man?

The irony here, of course, is that Kaepernick’s mother is white. Thus, many of you reading this might say, how does this racialized history of animalizing black women connect with white women? In fact, it connects quite tidily.

Those familiar with the history of White Supremacy in this country know that white men were and have been obsessed with white women’s sexual purity, which depends upon those women keeping a very far distance from black men. (I’ll point you to the original, 1915 film version of Birth of a Nation.) Several American mass murders of black people were started because of the (still unproved) charges that black men had raped white women, including the Tulsa, Oklahoma race riot in 1921 which left at least three hundred African Americans dead and leveled the black neighborhoods in that city.

On the flip side of this White Supremacist female sexual purity rule, white women who engaged in voluntary sexual congress with black men—as Kaepernick’s mother has—were stripped of their white privilege and white racial status. Many times, white women were beaten or driven from towns for consorting with black men.

Most recently, we saw the murder by vehicle of Heather Heyer, a young white woman who was protesting a White Supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. She was doing so alongside black people (including black men) when a White Supremacist decided to drive into a crowd of protesters. The murderous actions of this young, white man were praised by his racist colleagues.

I know that many young women of all complexions revel in reclaiming terms such as “bitch” and “hoe”, and in calling themselves and their friends by these terms. I understand the youthful exuberance and thus, I’m not trying to shut anybody down. Do you, young sisters. Do you.

But when I see and hear the President of my country call somebody’s mama out her name at a rally, in front of television cameras, I’m put in mind of gatherings of white mobs whose goal is violence. (We saw that violence at Trump rallies during last year’s campaign.) Remember, the President was in Alabama, in the deep south, the location of many lynchings and mass murders of black folks.

And right next door to Alabama, there is Georgia, where one lynching that took place has continued to haunt me for years. It is the murder of an eight months’ pregnant black woman who, in May 1918 was killed alongside her husband in or around Valdosta, Georgia.

After she was hung, the woman’s body expelled her baby. Instead of stopping in horror at what they had done and trying to rescue the child, the white mob then took turns stomping the newborn infant, who was still connected by the umbilical cord to its mother’s body.  This woman’s name was Mary Turner.

I thought of this poor lady and her child, as I heard what I can only assume was an all-white crowd cheering as the President of this country of mine, essential calling the mother of a black man a “bitch.” An animal.

How long are we going to pretend that these gatherings of white racists are simply political rallies of those who just happen to differ in party and opinions from the rest of us who want peace between the races? How long are we going to pretend that this current President is harmless, when we have a long history pointing to similar activities, and that long history tells us this behavior is not harmless, not in the least?

These gatherings are where racist mob mentality is nurtured, and where, even those who call themselves “pro-life” have proven time and again that there are specific, racist rules for the sanctity of life and those who provide. That rule is whiteness. And any woman connected to black people–even a white woman– has no place in their world or is worthy of their love or respect.

 

On Being Black and Being Sat in the Back of Literary Events

Rosa Parks: an introvert who changed the world.

I wish I could find a phrase that instantly informs the sweet, perfectly nice, very liberal and progressive white organizers of literary events that if you’ve only got four black guests in a room of over two hundred, you don’t sit one of those black guests in the back of the room, especially if she’s been nominated for a prize.

Not near the back.

In the back.

In the back, by the doors, which open up on the left to the women’s bathroom and on the right to the man’s bathroom.

I wish I could remind the organizers that when one of the honored, invited guests is an older black lady from the Deep South, being sat in the back of the room by the doors which open up to bathrooms might trigger her racially and make her think of Mrs. Rosa Parks.

Being in the back might make an honored, invited, black guest feel ashamed. That might hurt her feelings.

That might make her wonder, did you really mean to honor her, or did you mean to remind her that she’s not as special as she’d like to think she is?

And why were you so nice to her and, in the past, why have you talked about racial politics–and yet, you can’t pick up on what sitting in the back of the room means for a black person from the South?

That might make your honored guest feel insane.

That might make her run a dozen, strange scenarios in her mind, when she needs to be getting sleep so she can get to Church the next morning. It might make her miss Church, where she was supposed to be praising the Lord, Who has assured her, there are no Negro seats in Heaven. Everybody gets to sit up front when they get to Glory.

I wish I could find something to say that would seem kind and polite, but in all these years, anything I think of seems ungrateful–after all, I’m an invited guest. Considering who my ancestors are, I should just be happy to be there. My unspoken objections have seemed angry and, well, BLACK.

Whenever I’ve practiced my objections in the mirror, they have made me feel like crying. And if I actually uttered those objections to someone and actually started crying, that would make me seem like a hysterical woman of any race. And I don’t want to be that person.

And I don’t want to hurt my literary career by making trouble. I want to be the “good” black person that white people love to be around. I want to be life of the party–but not in an Uncle Tom way. I want to be fun, but not too fun.

I want to make money from my writing. And if I make money, at some point, somebody will think to put me in the front of the room.

But at this age, I’ve started wondering, I’ve got maybe thirty-five or forty years of life left. And when will this mythic-sitting-in-the-front-of-the-room moment happen for me? Haven’t I been “good” for a really, really long time? How much money do I have to make to sit in the front? Is there a specific, monetary amount down to the cents?

Once, I was really excited not to be sat in the back. I was in an auditorium for the event. I was an invited guest at the event–although I hadn’t been invited to the luncheon, nor to the dinner, which really hurt my feelings, but looking back, this was probably a good thing, because sometimes, I get tired of eating by the bathroom.

Anyway.

I’d been escorted to the second row of the auditorium. I was thrilled. And then, right in the middle of the event, someone white approached me. She was an official with the organizers of the event.

Whispering, she told me, I had to move to the back. I whispered back, and I asked why, and she said, there wasn’t any room for me to sit on the second row. I glanced around. I was surrounded by empty seats. I gestured to those seats, and she said, those seats were being saved for someone else. Honored guests.

I really wanted to cry, but in a normal voice–not a whisper–I told her, I wasn’t moving.

Whispering, she told me, I had to move.

I told her–still in my normal voice, which was trembling a little bit– please stop talking, because I really didn’t want to cause a scene.

Then, I looked ahead into space, just like Mother Parks. I hoped my ancestor was looking down on me from Heaven where she sat in her front seat. I hoped she was pleased.

Afropalooza Day 4: Did Y'all Know Ruby Dee Was a Poet?!

Y’all I was just doing a random search and came upon this YouTube video from “With Ossie and Ruby.” It said, “Ruby Dee” performs her poem–and I thought, now, Miss Ruby was one of my favorites actresses, but I didn’t know she was a poet!

I clicked on it, and Miss Odetta starts singing. (Don’t know Odetta? Here’s her bio.) Then, Miss Ruby starts reciting her poem. And then, I was completely transported.

I promise y’all, this video is so luminous, and life-changing.

 

 

Early Morning Reflection: Day Two of “Afropalooza”

rising-sun-1For some reason, I woke up at 3:15 this morning, checking things off my Daily To-Do List.

Usually, I don’t awake until about 8am or even later, and when I do, I always chastise myself for laziness. I am the daughter of a woman who grew up on a farm, who rose in darkness to order the day.

I remember my mother quietly waking me in my childhood, and it never occurred to me that she actually slept like a real human being, that she didn’t keep the planet safe like a super hero or a goddess. I took my breakfast for granted.

And sometimes, even when I don’t actually play the song, I sing in my head Sweet Honey in the Rock’s version of “In the Morning When I Rise.”  It reminds me of the few, tender moments of my childhood and my mother’s voice.

This morning, I still feel pretty high about the beginning of Black History Month. Yesterday, my students chuckled as I raised my arms in a little victory dance: “Happy first day of Afropalooza, Y’all!” (They know their professor is a nerd, so they are indulgent with me, and I am grateful.)

But this morning, as I puttered around my house in the darkness, rinsing off last night’s dishes and putting dirty laundry in the washer–I am not a fan of housework–I asked myself, “Honorée, what IS it about this month that makes you feel so good?”

After all, for most of my adulthood, I spent Valentine’s Day alone. (It’s still not a favorite holiday for me.) And for the past six years, there has been sadness in this month, too, because I lost a great person in my life during this month–the poet Lucille Clifton. And James W. Richardson, my dear, departed friend, has a birthday this month, so I will probably shed a few tears during these twenty-nine days.

Yes, I call this time “Afropalooza,” and I like to think about it as a party, but there is tragedy to the African American experience, to lives of my people in this country. I, of all people, am no stranger to tragedy, though mine doesn’t begin to compare to what others have endured.

But as I thought about why I love this time, it came to me: since I was a little girl, February has been the month where I felt all my African/American ancestors gather around me, in a ring shout. They have been there, my entire life, watching over me.

I feel my strongest during this time. It’s like a church revival, where I become renewed and the Spirit runs through me. That’s such a good feeling, such a reassurance that no matter how hard things are or might be, I have this month to gather myself again, and to try to be the woman I know I was meant to be.

I hope you feel the same reassurance, if not in this month, then at another time. And I wish you strength today, and blessings this morning.

Love,

Honorée

 

It’s Black History Month, Y’all! You Know What Time It Is.

 

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Image found at Library of Congress

It’s Afropalooza Time!!!–And I had to come back for this. I had to. You know this is my favorite time of the year.

And no, I am not going to give excuses for being gone so long. I’m just going to act like your favorite auntie: Swish in wearing my cutest outfit, pretend I’ve never been gone, and ask you to fix me a plate. (“Give me an extra pork chop, baby, and don’t tell my doctor.”)

But first, before we shake our proverbial groove thangs in celebration of Black History Month, our loving ancestors and all the glory they have given to us black folks and to the United States in general, I must needs have a word about Stacey Dash.

O Stacey, upon whom the incomparable Gabrielle Union threw the world’s best Sister Girl Shade.:

“Who… is… Stacey Dash?”

Usually, I don’t like Shade or, even, shade. But when somebody starts kicking dirt on the entire house that black people built, going back four hundred years, I live for this kind of Shade With a Big “S.”  I cannot lie.

So let the Shade against Embarrassing The Race Negroes begin.

I used to love me some Stacey Dash. Who didn’t love Deon in Clueless?

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She was cute, she had spunk, and she kept her man in check. But now, I don’t know what has happened to Stacey. I hesitate to speculate. (Forgive my iambic tretrameter.)

However, though it’s been a while, y’all do remember me, don’t you? Thus, I will speculate, indeed.

Has Stacey always been someone who hated black people, even as she starred in various iterations of R&B slash Hip Hop music videos?

Is Stacey getting paid a really huge secret stipend—aside from her regular salary—to dog out black folks (at seeming random intervals though we know there is a Master Charlie plan) on Fox News?

Is Stacey mad that she got fired from that Single Ladies show on Vh-1, after the alleged “did not happen” physical altercation with her co-star, LisaRaye? Did Stacey perhaps forget to take her earrings off before said alleged “did not happen” altercation and have to get her earlobes reattached to her head via plastic surgery and is now suffering post-traumatic stress?

It’s a mystery.

But I’m still really irritated that this woman would even fix her mouth to say we don’t need Black History Month. What is wrong with her?

I’m even more irritated that, somewhere, the many white microagressors who are constantly mentioning their one “black friend” to justify their daily racist acts have a champion in Stacey Dash.

So let me explain to those who do not know why we need Black History Month. Or as one of my dear friends from Philly says, “Let me break this down so it will forever stay broke.”

So first, let’s just pour out some very expensive adult beverage for Brother Carter G Woodson, the founder of Black History Week, which later became Black History Month. Thank you, Brother. We appreciate you so much.

Second, Black History Month begins in February, and February 1 is the birthday of Langston Hughes, and if you don’t like him, I just don’t know what to say about you.

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Langston Hughes (Image found at Poetry Foundation)

Except, I will try to change your mind. Here’s my favorite poem by him.

Don’t make me break into a recitation of said favorite poem, record that, and then post it to my blog. Get your mind right and get with Brother Hughes’s poetry, before it’s too late.

And then, there are a bunch of other fabulous black people born in February: Rosa Parks, Alice Walker, Melvin Tolson,Toni Morrison, Sidney Poitier, Marian Anderson, and Leontyne Price. Some of them are still alive, so we really need to celebrate them to the utmost, while they are still here on this earthly plane.

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Leontyne Price  (image found at “On and Off the Record”)

Sidebar: Did I ever tell y’all about the time I was nine and saw Leontyne Price sing luminous opera music at Duke University in Durham, NC? And I got an autograph from her (that I lost somewhere)? I remember she was beautiful, she had a presence, and her false eyelashes were epic.

Anyway, just so you know, we do not need Black History Month to boost African American self-esteem, though that is a nice side effect.

We do not need Black History Month to prove why we need reparations for slavery. There is no proof needed for that. (Just Google African Americans and 1619, and that’s all you need to know.) I know I will never get my check, though, just like I will never get back that five dollars I let my cousin “hold” in 2009.

We do not even need Black History Month to promote African American unity. We already have that. It’s called “Black Twitter.”

However, we do need Black History Month because only stupid people think that the history of race relations in the United States of America began at 4:30 this morning, like some sort of bizarre, colored version of the movie “groundhog day.”

Sidebar: Those people who think race relations are great now are also those folks who claim to be “colorblind” but simultaneously can see color just good enough to constantly bring up their one “black friend.”

And we do need Black History Month because there is a lie floating around that only white folks have participated in the building of this country, from its beginning. I have met grown, white people who did not know that black men fought in the American Revolutionary War.

Now that I done said that, when it comes to Black History Month/Afropalooza, y’all know that I will most definitely extend a party.

Like, you know how some (black) folks will announce a week before their birthdays that it’s their birthdays—and then, party for an entire seven days with no shame, eating various forms of pigmeat and drinking brown liquor like it’s mother’s milk?

That’s me (without the brown liquor. I can’t handle it.) I have no shame.

So in February, there’s Black History Month and I celebrate black folks.

In March, there’s Women’s History Month, so I celebrate black women–who I already have celebrated in February because I’m, like, a woman and I’m black.

In April, there is National Poetry Month, and I’m a poet (and many of my friends are poets), so I celebrate black poets.

It’s a 90-day Afropalooza party, y’all!

So if you are tired of black people, you need to check in now, say, “Hey Honorée! It’s good to see you again, girl, FINALLY!” (That would be your own brand of shade, but I don’t mind.) And then, you can come back and visit me in May.

I’m just warning you ahead of time, because I love you.

Race + Class = What “Police Brutality” Means for Some (But Definitely, Not All) Black Folks

I  just don’t write super quickly about emotionally charged events anymore, because when I do, usually I say something stupid and hurt somebody’s feelings without meaning to. And it took me having a really deep, teary conversation with a dear friend last night (over something that didn’t even start out being about police brutality) to collect my thoughts.

So here goes.

I don’t want to dismiss anyone’s grief over the killing of the child Mike Brown—yes, child; when you get to be my age, you understand just how young eighteen is. And yes, I’m sad, too. Just because I don’t talk about my grief in a way that makes people feel comfortable doesn’t mean I don’t have it.

But I also have had some anger. And that anger is over class.

And when I say “class,” I’m not talking about those silly, obvious, and rather useless “class” markers, such as whether somebody has walked around with his pants hanging down, or whether somebody has previously been arrested, or whether somebody was “asking for it.”

And when I say anger, I’m not just talking about anger over racism—which is sticky thing to catch ahold of. I’m talking about how no one really wants to address that the lived experiences of contemporary, college-educated, middle-class, black people and the lived experiences of contemporary, formally-uneducated, poor, black people are vastly different when it comes to racialized violence at the hands of the police.

I’m not the first person who has talked about race and class, and I won’t be the last person. And I’m not the first person who has talked about violence at the hands of the police is class-based, either. But I have been searching for someone who really understands that race plus class is a very real, existing intersectionality that some black folks–even so-called “correct” black folks–don’t “get” or experience in the least.

Oh, lately, there’s so much talk about “racism in America” and what it means. So much talk about whether white folks without black friends are racist, when, let’s face it, I’m pretty choosy about my black friends. I’m pretty choosy about my white friends. I’m just choosy like that. But should I now run out and get me some more to prove something to somebody?

But let’s also face that there is a difference between the issues confronted by middle-class black people who want to be liked, accepted, and assimilated into mainstream (i.e. white) culture and who feel diminished by that culture versus the issues of life or death confronted by the bodies and psyches of poor black people in overwhelmingly segregated neighborhoods that are policed by white police officers.

Because, look, don’t no white cop shoot an unarmed black child to death because said white cop don’t think Lupita is cute and/or he ain’t got nobody black to go to the Applebee’s with Sunday after church. This goes deeper than just “race”, and this goes deeper than some ephemeral talk about “this is what slavery was like.”

Sidebar: And as a student of history, I really wish that folks who are not real students of history–or who have never been slaves– would stop thinking they know about slavery simply because they retweet something on Twitter. Try reading an actual history book or three hundred. Okay? I just needed to say that.

Let us return.

When we think about the direct line of descent from the plantation overseer—a working class white man—and the slave patrollers—made up of “Yeoman” farmers or other working class white men—down to most southern, white police forces now, we need to consider that contemporary police forces in the south are overwhelmingly populated with working class white men.

And what do the overseer, the slave patrollers, and contemporary southern police forces have in common? They traditionally have been used for the past three hundred years or so years to keep poor black folks “in line.”

By the way, I’ve read a history book or three hundred. Just so you know.

These southern, overwhelmingly white police forces impact young black people from poor neighborhoods on a daily basis. We are talking about the terrifying onslaught on poor, black neighborhoods in which the police are used to keep poor black people “in line”—and in their own “quarters.”

Yes, middle class black people have experienced racism, but we might call the first level of this racism “racial insult.” (And these are just my own categories.)

Racial insults might entail being followed in a store or being talked to in a disrespectful, cruel manner by white coworkers or student colleagues. Maybe you stood in line at the Piggly Wiggly and the clerk pretended you weren’t next. That kind of racism takes a toll on your psyche—trust, I know—but it does not propel six bullets through your body and brain.

Then, there’s the next level of racism: we might call those instances “racial harassment.”

Racial harassment entails the time or two that one middle-class young black man was stopped and harassed by the police. He might have even been arrested, pushed onto the hood of the car, roughed up and made to fear for his life. But at the end of it all, he was able to call his parents, a mentor, or reach into his wallet and pull out the business card upon which his attorney’s name has been embossed.–I am not dismissing the experience of that black man, but what I am saying is, there is a difference between a kid whose parents can bail him out of jail and a kid whose parents have to call a bail bondsman.

And then, we have the third, highest level of racism: “racial violence.” This is where a black person is injured and/or killed by someone in a hate-based crime.

And you might say now, “But, Honorée, we know your background. So who are you to bring this up? And are you seriously trying to say that you know the difference, with your bourgie, middle-class, professor self?”

But yet, I do know the difference, very distinctly. Because yes, I’ve been poor, and yes, I’ve been middle-class and yes, I’ve seen–though not experienced– all three levels of racism first hand. Surprise.

When my parents separated, we suddenly became poor.  My mother, sister, and I lived in what was then called “Section-8 housing” in Southwest DeKalb County, Georgia, and then, in a “poor” black neighborhood in Atlanta. When we visited older relatives in the country (Eatonton) who were living on fixed incomes, they would give us their commodity foods: that huge loaf of so-called “cheese”—which, somehow made the most delicious grilled cheese sandwiches—and the other, processed food products upon which the names were brandished in bold letters: “Milk”, “Peanut Butter,” and so forth.

We ate meat only on the weekends, a lot of pinto beans and cornbread, and sweetened iced tea which took away our appetite, though I don’t think my mama was considering that at the time. And we lived with whole congregations of roaches and rats, sometimes at the same moments, sometimes, at different intervals. And coming from my privileged, middle-class background of Durham, North Carolina, I was extremely demoralized by my poverty—but I soon understood, so were other black kids who did not come from where I came from.

Example: we had the “free” or reduced” stamped on our lunch tickets, and the sticker was very prominent; the kids who didn’t eat those lunches were aware of our financial state and sometimes made not-so-nice comments. And let me tell you, I was terrified that whoever had given my tasteful, carefully chosen outfits to the Goodwill might come upon me wearing them and call me out. My mother worked two jobs in addition to teaching and attending graduate school to keep my sister and me in pocket money so we could perpetrate like we weren’t poor–sometimes leading to bills not being paid–but we never brought our “friends” from school over to visit.

This lasted only four years, but the memory of poverty is as fresh as it was over thirty years ago. The only thing that saved us was that my father died. My Columbia-educated, stingy, college professor-father who, bewilderingly, had taken out a prominent life insurance policy and named my mother as the sole beneficiary. After I left my poverty behind, I knew how lucky I was. The other kids that had that stamp on their lunch card did not have the same background as I, a background which I moved into the foreground with stunningly relieved and brisk grace.

Yes, this is my “class confession.” There are many, many things you do not know about me.

I think about those kids sometimes. About those funky neighborhoods I lived in, where the white police were constantly patrolling, and where the black kids would say to me, “When they come up on you, don’t run. If you run, they gone shoot.”

At least once a month—thirty years later, as I sit in my cute, three-bedroom, two-bathroom house in my white neighborhood—I think about my “cut-buddy” friends, Black and Junior and Scut. I think about whether they made it out of their twenties alive. And when I made it to graduate school, I promised myself, I would do anything to never be poor again. Anything.

And I did do anything. I sucked up to white folks to get ahead in my career, I put away my “race rage,” I learned how, when I moved my speech into the black vernacular to laughingly remind people that I was “code switching”–lest, as a (former) white friend told me once, I came off sounding ignorant– and here I am, middle-class again. I can admit the self-effacing, sometimes humiliating actions that kept my thing intact.

We talk about race of our “white allies” and “white privilege” when we talk about the fight against racism. But at some point, I would like us to think of the class of middle class “black allies” who do not have the same experiences that poor black people go through every day.

What are the roles of the middle-class black people who, once the dust has cleared from the protests of Ferguson, Missouri and a child’s funeral is over, can once again fly back home on tickets purchased with their credit cards, and then, walk through their much “nicer,” safe neighborhoods, and drive their late-model vehicles into the two-car garage attached to a home bought with credit based upon jobs at places of business (or education) where they are surrounded by white people they must get along with—and all without the daily fear of the assault on their actual bodies, but only, an assault to their feelings or senses of self-esteem?

I think a lot about the issues I’ve mentioned in this post. I’m asking you to do the same. And after you think, even if you decide you don’t agree with me, just because we don’t agree doesn’t mean I’m not sad a black child is dead.

Slavery Reparations: Don’t Follow the Morals. Follow the Money.

cover-bigAs you recall, the last time I came back to blogging, it was for an ancestral moment.  So here I am again. It’s something about those ancestors that just keep bringing me back here.

But I plan to stay for a while this time. Y’all know me. I’ve saved up all the stories. And you know you want to hear them all.

Anyway, I think by now that everyone has either heard about or read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s very long and incredibly interesting, if very flawed—yes I said it—article in The Atlantic concerning Reparations for past discrimination against African Americans.  (Not just slavery, but also, Jim Crow.)

Don’t worry. I’ve no intention of writing 15,000 words. You can relax.

I have very strong opinions about the article, not the least of which are that he presented a trailer for the article, which is a clear “I said it and now, I’ve dropped the Slavery Mic”  signal if ever there was one. But, hey, we writers are arrogant. I cannot say that I, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, do not stand in my mirror and recite my poetry over and over with dramatic pauses and profound facial expressions and whatnot. So, look, let Brother Coates have his article trailer.

But there are some things that I should—nay, must—point out.

First, Brother Coates started an article discussing Reparations—a term which is associated with slavery, even if he claimed that he wasn’t writing about slavery, despite his mentioning at least one former slave in the article—with a quote by John Locke, who was a financial investor in the Royal African Company.

Do y’all know what the Royal African Company was? It was a slave trading enterprise.

Y’all know I was making the Old Black Church Lady sound: “Um. Um. Um.” 

And in addition, I kept saying, “Dang, Brother Coates. John Locke in a Reparations Article? JOHN LOCKE IN A REPARATIONS ARTICLE?!” all while I was reading the article.  I was thinking, if I really admired the work of a philosopher as Brother Coates has said he admires John Locke, I’d do more than a Wikipedia search. I might actually read up on him. And it’s not like this information on Locke is hidden. All one has to do is Google “John Locke and Slavery”—and it pops right on up.

The second thing is, Brother Coates mentioned land that was stolen from African Americans as part of past discrimination. This is a tricky one, too. Now, it seems like this is a horrible thing, to take the land from someone who has paid for it. And it is, in theory.

But consider the fact that the land—which was in North America—was initially stolen from Native/Indigenous peoples before it got to the black people, and it starts to get a little dicey there. Because the second theft was after the first theft. And if we are talking moral issues, can you really reimburse somebody for land that was stolen in the first place?

I mean, check it: suppose somebody comes by your house while you and your friends are playing spades (and drinking brown liquor) on a Saturday evening, and wants to sell some stolen goods he or she boosted.

I know that would never, ever, in a million years happen in the African American community on a Saturday night. I mean, God forbid. I’m getting outraged just thinking about it.

So anyway, in this completely hypothetical, outrageous situation, you buy something—accidentally—that kinda might be stolen. Like a purse. And then, one day while you are at the store, you forget and leave your purse in your unlocked car, and somebody reaches in and grabs your purse. But guess what? You can’t report the purse as stolen to the police because it was stolen in the first place.

Kind of like African Americans expecting to get reimbursed for land that originally was stolen from the Muskogee, the Creeks, the Seminoles, the Cherokee, and the Choctaw by white Americans, right?

But here’s my biggest problem with not only Brother Coates’s article, but with a lot of the Reparations work already done by, say, Randall Robinson, or the Republic of New Africa organization, Queen Mother Moore, and many others.

Get ready again.

The traditional argument for Reparations—or “case,” as Brother Coates put it—is based upon past cruelty done to African Americans. And that is not a sturdy foundation.

I hear a collective shouting from my readers. Because how dare I say that the pain that African American suffering is not worthy of Reparations? But I’m not saying that in the least.

Look: I’m descended on both sides from enslaved people. I have the sad family stories and I do historical research on the Transatlantic slave trade and North American slavery, in both the south and north. I write much of my creative work on the issue of slavery. I’ve lain awake at night literally screaming, after a day of reading and writing on slavery. I’m not playing with you. I would not lie about something like that.

Therefore, does my heart, spirit and ancestral memory tell me that, morally, current African Americans are owed monetary Reparations of some kind—such as forgiveness of student loans—after what our ancestors went through and the current humiliations, cruelties and physical threats that many of us still go through?

In the words of my grandmother, “You darn tooting.”

But are we going to get Reparations based on moral reasoning? Again, no, we are not. I don’t care that Brother Coates wrote in his article—which I had issues with, yes, but which had some very beautiful moments. (The brother does have a very elegant way with words. I got to give him that.)

“White folks were mean to my people” is not going to carry the day.  Moral outrage is not going to carry the day. Tears are not going to carry the day. Talking about Racial Apartheid is not going to carry the day.  This is not the emotional crescendo portion of Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I had a dream speech” that gives you chills—and that speech wasn’t even supposed to be about his dream, okay? The speech used to be called the “bad check speech.”

But members of the Republican Party can’t get a fake, emotional catharsis from referring to a hot check. A Hot Check Treatise could not be used by the GOP to chide us colored folks that we aren’t living up to Dr. King’s standard.

What might win the day and some moolah—and that’s a big, fat, might, because the fight for Reparations has been going on for a couple of hundred years, at least— is a discussion about what actually happened to all that money made off the slave trade. Just where did all that money go?

I was planning to get back to blogging anyway, but this specific blog post came as a result of a discussion I had online last evening concerning slave trade money. It was something that I’d been thinking about for a while, and I actually had thought—or hoped—that Brother Coates would bring up the issue.

And here’s what I realized—and what other, far more learned folks than I already had realized: Slavery money is not clean money. It’s like any other kind of money earned from ill-gotten gains. Like organized crime money, which, when you think of it, is a perfect metaphor for slavery. It was an organized crime against humanity, involving generations of families, the government, and financial institutions.

Dirty money leaves some kind of trail. And what is dirtier than slavery money?

When certain white folks—and, it must be said, black folks, too— start talking about “that was then” they conveniently don’t get that, if wealth is handled efficiently, it generates more wealth. And that wealth is passed down from generation to generation which makes more wealth and so on and so forth. And though some of the proof for that wealth from slavery money has disappeared a lot of it is still around.

So, if “slavery was then and this is now,” how come that slavery money didn’t end “then”? How come that “in the past” money is still buying triple shot lattes now–all day, every day, today?

For example, certain insurance companies issued insurance policies for slaves, such as Aetna, New York Life, and others.

Banks have made money off of slavery. Wachovia admitted it.

Nearly all the Ivy League universities in New England and some prestigious universities in the south were financed with slave money. Here’s the link for you to order Craig Stephen Wilder’s book, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of America’s Universities.

Also, here is the exhaustive self-study done by Brown University on the very close ties of the founders of the university to slave traders. Brown is in Rhode Island, by the way. The whole state was slave trading and horror central.

Here is an article written by the authors of a book on the roots of slavery with American capitalism. And here’s a book written on that same subject by Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.

How did I find out about these books and articles, which are just a few of the very well-researched discussions of the financial roots of current American economics? I asked my historian friends. Everyone should know or be friendly with an historian. It comes in quite handy. A sister wouldn’t lie to you.

And what about all those houses, like the Royall House that still stands, built by a slaveholder? Belinda Royall was mentioned in Brother Coates’ article.  (The former Poet Laureate Rita Dove wrote a poem for her a while back.)  Isaac Royall was Miss Belinda’s master, a Loyalist who fled to England during the Revolutionary War. His house was seized. Today, it is not a private house; it is owned by the state of Massachusetts and the house and the slave quarters constitute a museum. 

How much is that state-owned house worth now?

What about all those other Big Houses, bought with slave money, up and down the Eastern Seaboard that now belong to other state government organizations and preserved? Unless all those houses are suffering from extensive termite damage, those houses—built with slave labor and slave money—are worth a lot of cash.  Is that not present slavery money?

What about those universities that still have endowments in the billions, endowments supported by slave trade money? Is that not present slavery money?

What is my point? Well, I am not trying to hate on Brother Coates, so please understand that.

What I am doing, as one scholar to another, is pointing out that whenever one makes an argument—a case, if you will—one must anticipate the holes someone is going to poke in that argument even before the argument is put to paper. This is why right now, anti-Reparations Trolls are busy being hostile and putting Brother Coates in corners. Trolls don’t care about meanness that happened two hundred years ago. They don’t care about meanness that happened two weeks. That’s why they are Trolls.

But if we—and by “we” I mean those of us who support Reparations, which I definitely do—begin to do the hard and years-long work—to follow the money trail that has never disappeared, we might have a change. It is time for the concerted effort of many, many learned supporters of Reparations to address this issue from all sides and do the research.

Brother Coates needs to be reaching out to a bunch of historians who know far more about this subject—certainly far more than I do, so let me make that clear as well—and quoting from them and asking for their advice. Because despite his article trailer, this ancient fight is nowhere near over.

I know that it is hard for us black folks to look at this issue in a calm, clear-eyed manner, without clenching hearts. It’s extremely difficult for me. I couldn’t sleep well tonight—I’ve haven’t slept at all—after reading tidbits from the Brown University report.  But it is time for us to understand that in order to be prepared for the ugliness that comes when discussing Reparations, we need to be prepared to set aside emotion and go straight for the jugular: the contemporary American wallet that is still fat with the unpaid wages of our ancestors.

Questions for Mr. Joe Morton After Reading His Article on 12 Years a Slave in Huffington Post

Dear Mr. Morton:

I read your article today, “When Will Black Historical Films Focus on Triumph, Rather Than Plight” and I have some questions for you.

First, why are stories of slavery not triumphant?

Are you descended from enslaved people like over 90% of black folks in America (and more than a few white folks)? I am. My paternal great-great grandfather fought in a Colored Regiment in the Union Army, later went to medical school and became a doctor. And his son became a doctor.

He was born a slave. Is his story not a triumph?

His great grandson–my father–earned two degrees from Columbia University and later became only the second black person in the history of the English Department at North Carolina State University to earn tenure and full professor.

Is that not a triumph?

My mother’s great-grandmother was a slave, around six when Emancipation came. She told my mother the story of her father being sold down the river to Mississippi. She never saw him again, but told my mother never to forget the story and Mama never did. She told me and told me never to forget. And now, I’m telling you, to bear witness to what happened, lest it be forgotten.

Is that not a triumph?

Mama’s tenant farmer parents sent her to Spelman College–the first in her family. She graduated, later earned a Master’s from California State University, then a doctorate from Atlanta University, then went on to earn tenure and full professor at Talladega College, a school founded for freed slaves.

Is that not a triumph?

I–the descendant of slaves on both maternal and paternal sides–graduated from Talladega College–my mother was one of my professors–graduated from University of Alabama’s graduate school–where some of the buildings were built by slave labor–and I am now a tenured, Associate Professor at a school that hired its first African American tenure track professor the year of my birth.

I own my own home. My credit’s pretty okay, though I owe a lot of student loans. I published some books. I’m happy. I’ve never missed a meal. I’m in love and all married and stuff.

Is that not a triumph?

Mr. Morton, can I ask you, if you are so concerned about the depiction of sexual violence of white men against black women in 12 Years a Slave, how come I don’t recall your taking the time to write an article about black men’s continual abuse of black women–ostensibly their own community sisters–in Hip Hop music? Or is black misogyny not a form of psychological bondage aka slavery?

If we can support Jay-Z–probably the best known Hip Hop artist of all time–who is a former crack dealer turned misogynist rapper-millionaire as a “triumphant” story, how come there is all this black protest–including yours– over Solomon Northup’s story?

Solomon Northup survived being kidnapped as a free man into slavery, sold down south, he was rescued as a result of a loving, interracial action team, he was reunited with his intact, nuclear family, and because he was a literate man–unlike so many other black folks, since there were laws against black literacy at the time–wrote a book about his experiences, one edition of which made it to The New York Times bestseller’s list.

From Freedom to Slavery to Freedom again–what’s not triumphant about that?

Did you know George Washington, our first President, and Thomas Jefferson, our third, as well as several signers of the Declaration of Independence were slaveholders? How many times have you–or other black people–written articles in the mainstream press to protest PBS documentaries or films made on the American Revolution and its aftermath, abolition, and the Civil War?

How come I’ve never read an article written by you–or any of the other black protesters of 12 Years a Slave– in Huffington Post which reads, “A Documentary on George Washington AGAIN?! Dang!”?

Why is the story of white slaveholders triumphant, but not the stories of their slaves? Is it because, even with black people–whom I hope would know better–triumph is measured in financial holdings or paragraphs in history books, instead of moral fortitude? And do you ever wonder that if black people decide that enslaved black people aren’t triumphant enough to remember how we will get those paragraphs in history books to begin with?

Why are black people who are no longer alive–enslaved people– being made to feel ashamed for their being slaves, instead of being congratulated for surviving and passing down values to their descendants–like “y’all love each other,” like “leave no one behind,” like “God is good even when you can’t see the proof,” like “you can make it, even the toughest of times”?

How come we’ve stopped thanking them and started trying to hide them in historical closets?

Mr. Morton, do you want your descendants to forget about you and stop telling your stories if they decide you no longer fit a triumphant model?

Because you are currently playing the role of a murderous CIA Director in ABC’s Scandal. I love that show, and by the way, I love your work (going all the way back to Brother From Another Planet, which, oddly enough, depicted white-on-black violence and slavery themes, if I remember correctly.) And, well, I’m mad at you now, but I’ve always had a little crush on you.

I love that mole you have on your face. Not that this is important, but have you noticed I have a mole on my face, too?

Should I stop watching Scandal because you are playing a non-triumphant, horrible, black murderer-man on the show?–Because I won’t. I just can’t. I just love Scandal too much. Please don’t make me stop. It’s TV crack . And Kerry and Them with great outfits. And you’re so fine and sinister and very well-groomed.

Anyway.

Speaking of Jay-Z, I’m curious, are certain black people upset that 12 Years a Slave wasn’t made like their favorite Jay-Z rap music video–ending with Solomon driving back North in his gold-plated Bentley, pulling up to a mansion where his blond-weave- wearing wife answers the door wearing a mink coat draped over her bikini and thigh-high boots–and then, they both start spitting Hip Hop rhymes while young, scantily clad, biracial-looking, video vixens twerk around them ecstatically?

I should write that screenplay.

Mr. Morton, if I did write that screenplay, would you help me get it made into a triumphant movie about black history? Please support a sister.

Sincerely yours,

Honorée

 

 

Teachable Racial Moment: You’re Supposed to be Upset By a Slavery Movie. That’s the Whole Point.

I’m writing. I promise–which is why in addition to my not updating the blog like I used to, I’m supposed to be on a Social Media Fast. That is, until last night, when I sneaked on Facebook and read a comment thread where someone white was vehemently arguing against the depiction of violence in Twelve Years a Slave, the movie.

And then, I got really, really mad. And then, I didn’t get any work done.

I can deal with the Confederate Flag Toting Yahoos and their “I’m tired of hearing about slavery and now, shut up all y’all n*****s” routine.  But there’s something about Nice Liberal White People trying to trash a movie made by a black man about slavery by using the “I’m made uncomfortable by all that slavery violence” excuse that just burns my biscuits.

Sidebar: I wish that some middle class black folks who are highly educated and nice, too, would join me in telling Nice Liberal White People that it is not really their place to talk about how black folks should make their own films about their enslaved ancestors. And also, that it doesn’t matter if Steve McQueen is British because the British Empire had black folks in slavery in the United Kingdom and in British colonies, too. And it doesn’t matter if Chiwetel Ejiofor is British, either, because his parents are Nigerian and some of his ancestral kin ended up as slaves in America.

That whole “black folks are still black even when they don’t live in America” thing is what’s called the African Diaspora, just so you know.

Anyway, I have not even seen this film yet because it’s not in my town. I live in a very conservation area and I’m not even sure the film will make it to my town. But I am a serious fan of Chiwetel Ejiofor, going all the way back to his Kinky Boots days.  I even saw him in Love Actually, which made me ask, “Don’t no black folks ever marry each other in the United Kingdom?” And of course, I’ve read the narrative of Solomon Northup; that was back in college, so I was excited, but after last night, I realized, it was time for A Teachable Racial Moment post before I get back to my writing.

So let me break it down:

First, you’re supposed to be upset by a slavery movie. That’s the whole point.

Slavery was bad, okay, no matter what Paula Deen tells herself. It was bad, and brutal, and dehumanizing for a lot of black folks on three continents for five hundred years.  (In fact, slavery is going on right now in this country with non-black folks.  But that’s another story.) Slavery is never supposed to give you a feel-good moment, unless somebody gets free.

When you read the classic slave narratives, like Solomon Northup’s or Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl or Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom you need to remind yourself that these books were written in the age of censorship and also, delicate public sensibilities; they use a lot of euphemism in these narratives so as not to shock nineteenth-century audiences. Despite the lack of overtly violent scenes, Jacobs’s book still was shocking because she addressed the sexual exploitation and sexual assault of enslaved black women, and to a lesser extent, enslaved black men and black children.

I didn’t see Tarantino’s Django Unchained because I might have been offended by his use of violence to depict slavery, but rather, because I refused to give my money to a disrespectful, rude—and might I say, extremely corny—white man who thinks he’s been granted a Ghetto Pass. No you haven’t, Mr. Tarantino, and your black friends in Hollywood might let you get away with using the n-word in front of them, but you better not come to The Dirty South and try that out in the country, not if you don’t want to get a Grits And Streak-o-Lean A** Whipping By RayRay And Them.

As a survivor of sexual assault and childhood molestation, I completely understand that some people might be triggered by what has been called graphic violence in Twelve Years a Slave.  I don’t want to diminish people’s trauma, nor am I telling them to “suck it up” and dash headlong into a situation that may prove emotionally detrimental to them.

What I am saying is, just don’t see the movie. But please–I mean, I’m begging you–if you are a white person, don’t proceed to lecture black filmmakers about whether it’s appropriate to depict the actual violence that happened to other black people because you–a white person– might get triggered by the violence. That’s one of those unfortunate “okay back to me” examples of white privilege that makes black folks want to cuss you out. It’s also extremely ironic–and not in a good way– considering that other white folks were the ones meting out the violence towards said black people.

Now, you don’t want to be that person, do you? Look, I’m just trying to be a friend here.

Further, movies about black history shouldn’t be expected to foster racial reconciliation between blacks and whites or start feel-good “conversations on race.” A black director is not a race. He’s a black director. And how come when, say, Unnamed White Lady writes a book or directs a movie, it’s not a “conversation on race”? Because you know what? It is to me.

I’m reading this book or watching that movie saying, “Dang, Unnamed White Lady, how come you don’t know one person of color unless she’s your sassy, celibate, unattractive black girlfriend who lives to tell you how fabulous you are and stroke your long, silky hair”?  That lack is, in itself, a statement—to me—about race in this country, maybe because I’ve read Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imaginationbut somehow, apparently, it’s not a statement on race to other readers or viewers. It’s just a film or a book about the “universal human experience.”

Do you see how that strange, double standard works? It’s odd, isn’t it?

For many Americans of all complexions, racial reconciliation has been the work that black art is supposed to do—”Race Work.” And yet, this Race Work has strayed away from its original intention of moving black folks forward in American society. These days, it doesn’t do that, because if that was the case, we wouldn’t have to keep doing the same work over again.

These days, Race Work resembles a clothed version of Sex Work, making the receiver of that labor feel good, but the pleasure–or racial understanding–of the worker is incidental and not important in the least. The worker is a conduit of pleasure or understanding—or both—but never an equal participant in the pleasure or understanding. And both Race Work and Sex Work have fleeting responses, too, resulting in that need to begin again. It’s like Negro Groundhog Day.

I can attest to that, having been on many “race panels on writing,” and on which I have decided to stop appearing.  I’m just tired, because it’s always the same Race Work. I’m supposed to listen sympathetically to the grievances of colored folks about how they’ve been ‘buked and scorned, while at the same time, explain to a group of Nice White Liberal People how I do that hoodoo I do: how I write like a black person. Or rather, “Write about race.” And then, I hope that if I have been well-behaved enough, someone will invite me to a college or university and do the same thing and pay me for my Race Work.

But I’m not a race. I’m just Honorée.

I can tell you about racism in this country, but race is another matter. To begin with, it does not exist as a real, biological thing; it exists as a social and legal category, something a bunch of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century white dudes made up to justify their prejudice against varying groups of people with dark skin.

Now, I can explain that, but how am I supposed to talk about how all that appears in my writing when I’m just trying my best to be an artist, and when I really want to say, “Y’all could make my job as a black writer less difficult if I didn’t have to keep trying to figure out what the heck ‘race’ was, and then, how to write about it just to make y’all happy. Because I’m going crazy over here with all this cognitive dissonance and binary opposition and whatnot and what have you.”

As the kids say, Can’t a sister live?

~

I know Twelve Years a Slave is not going to live up to my lofty expectations; no movie can do what I’ve been waiting for since I saw Roots back when I was nine years old. That was a big moment for me, but now, I look back and see a campy miniseries. That was all I had then, though, and I’m grateful. It did its job for the child I was. But I’m a woman now. (There’s a metaphor in there somewhere about this country.)

Roots was about racial reconcilation, and many black films have continued that tradition, but Steve McQueen has expressly stated that his film is not trying to “start a conversation about race” and for that, I applaud him. One of the biggest issues with American audiences today is that they expect to feel good after seeing a film about black history. This is what black art is supposed to do, right? It should teach. It should uplift. It should make you cry but not too much so that when you leave the theater you might feel sad, but you feel admiration for what black folks have gone through.  That’s why so many of those movies have those Emotionally Manipulative Fake Negro Spiritual Soundtracks.

And if you are a Nice White Liberal Person, in addition, you are supposed to feel guilty about the crimes of your ancestors, but never afraid that the present-day descendants of those folks are seething with anger over what was done to their ancestors. Never that.

But you know what? I don’t want to have to consider any of that when I’m watching a film on slavery. I’m just ready to see a real, good movie about some black folks, a film that makes me sigh in relief. I’m ready for a great film that happens to be about people who were enslaved. And I don’t want to be taught something on purpose. (If I want to learn something on purpose, that’s what, like, reading books is for.)

And I definitely don’t want to hear none of them Emotionally Manipulative Fake Negro Spiritual Soundtracks no more. Oh, I am so tired of those.

I just want a story about human beings that happen to be black and enslaved. I just want some art. And that’s what I heard Twelve Years a Slave was. And I’m ready for it. And then, I’m ready for another film like that. And then, another. Just keep them coming.

An Affirmation for This Day: Meditate on Sonia Sanchez

Uploaded from http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/watch_trailer_for_poetic_documentary_sonia_sanchez_shake_loose_memories

A few hours ago, I saw a public service ad online about doing something meaningful for September 11th, which, of course, was a horrible day in American history. So on this day, I’ve decided to celebrate my friend and beloved mentor, the renowned African American poet, educator and activist, Dr. Sonia Sanchez.

She celebrated her seventy-ninth birthday two days ago (on September 9th) and continues to bless us with her astounding poems and her courageous, do-right presence in the world. She is one of the most cherished people in my life. I cannot tell you how much I love her.

And, just as a slight, shallow aside, doesn’t she look really beautiful to be seventy-nine years old?! The picture to the right was taken very recently. And I promise you, she’s just as cute in person and she did not buy that hair, okay? It’s all hers, in its thick, wonderful glory. That’s what living a good life and eating a healthy diet can do, y’all.

I met “Miss Sonia” on the page before I’d met her in person, as if the case with many of us “young”—black poets.  She knew my father, as he had been a member of the Black Arts Movement and I had read her germinal volume We a BaddDDD People, which had been published by Broadside Press, the same press (then) of my father.

Sidebar: I don’t know how “young” I am anymore, but I still feel like a girl around Miss Sonia. She can do that to you, and you must always remember your manners around her. At least, I do.

And so, when I finally met her in the flesh in my teens—I was sixteen or seventeen—at a small gathering at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, I was a bit surprised at how tiny Miss Sonia was. I was expecting a much, much bigger person to match the huge voice in her poetry, not the tiny-boned, petite woman I encountered. But she was commanding in an almost overwhelming way when she spoke to me. Her air was one both of graciousness and gravitas.

Thirteen or so years later, I saw her again at Cave Canem, the workshop retreat for African American poets. It was the summer of 1998 in upstate New York, and I believe that in a few years, scholars of black poetry will write about that summer, not because I was there—I’m not being modest, just honest—but because of the collection of black poets who were.

Cave Cavem had been founded by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady, well-known poets. Elizabeth Alexander was there as faculty, as was Lucille Clifton—another woman who became beloved to me—and Michael S. Harper. The author and editor Eugenia Collier was there as special guest. And several of the fellows present that year are published poets now, including Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Shara McCallum, Kate Rushin, John Keene, Reginald Harris, Monica A. Hand, and R. Erica Doyle.

I was walking down the hallway of the monastery (where the retreat was heldthat year) when I approached the open door of Miss Sonia’s room. Out of respect for the privacy of a famous person, I kept my head down and tried to pass, but her voice snagged me.

“Hello, my dear sister,” she called out.

My southern home training required a polite exchange but I didn’t want to act like a “groupie,” nor did I want to trade on her past acquaintance with my father—already, I’d caught some shade from my contemporaries for being a “second” generation black poet. I poked my head in, tentatively.

“Hello, Ms. Sanchez. How are you?”

“I’m well, my dear sister. And you?”

“I’m good, thank you.”

She asked my name. Now, I really was in a quandary, and sure enough, when she heard “Jeffers,” she said, “Ah, Lance’s daughter!” She even remembered our first meeting, over a decade before. I was trapped, sucked into the identity of my father, when I was trying to make a name for my own self.

But the next few days weren’t so bad. In fact, they were life-altering. Her poetry reading that week ties as one of the best I’ve ever experienced—it ties with the one Miss Lucille gave that same week. When Miss Sonia read, it was like being in church. No, it was like being in church during revival week, with a full gospel choir, and fried chicken and lemon pound cake afterward, in the fellowship hall.

Over the years, Miss Sonia has become my good friend and my mentor, and I call her about once a month. Mostly, I pretend I’m calling to “check on” her, but really, I’m just calling to hear that voice, that combination of stern, no-nonsense and tender nurturing.–I remember the first time she said she was proud of me, I burst into tears. Right there on the phone. Yes, I should have been ashamed at my display. But no, I was not. I’d been waiting a long time for her to say those words.

Sometimes, I must admit, I do still marvel that I am sharing conversations and laughter with—and receiving wisdom from—one of my literary heroes, and I do have “groupie” moments, like when she calls The Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison simply “Toni”. My heart sort of stops a couple of seconds every time that happens and I have to suppress a little squeal. I can’t lie. I mean, Toni. Morrison. But mostly, I just love to hear Miss Sonia’s voice and the way she draws out “hey” like a Birmingham, Alabama lady when she knows it’s me on the phone. And how she calls me “my dear sister” and makes me feel, well, dear.

If you don’t know who Miss Sonia is, here are some links for you to “refresh yourself,” in the words of another dear black woman. (My mother.) I hope that Miss Sonia’s words will bless your day the way she blesses mine, whenever I call her and she answers the phone.

Sonia Sanchez’s official website 

Sonia Sanchez’s Wikipedia Page

Information about the Black Arts Movement

And finally, there is a documentary being made about Sonia Sanchez! It promises to be fantastic. Here is the link to the trailer of the film in progress. Enjoy!