Tell Mama No

Mama wore red to deny my blues

My Mama wore red to deny my blues

Blues born of whiteness that defines the rules

 

We had the talk, my Mama and I

Said we had the talk, my Mama and I

Son, you need to learn the game, if you don’t wanna die

 

Kneel before Jesus, then you kneel upon me

Lawd! you kneel before Jesus, how can you kneel upon me?

Crushing weight of centuries, prone limb of the hanging tree

 

But times have changed, things can never stay the same

Yes, things done changed, they can never stay the same—NO!

Though the oceans flow with blood, ancient drums call out my name

 

Refrain

Old rugged cross, a void, an inflated tear,

raised fist, a defiant stare

 

BLM

Since my son Cliff has been better able to express his thoughts and feelings on the movement, I’m sharing his latest poem with the hope it sparks change, and provides inspiration to jump start my own writing.


We are each but one voice
Screams into shielded faces
Cascading chants
Words calculated and calmly spoken into a lens
scribbled
typed
stories
poems
Each but one voice
Gaining power as it transforms into a chorus
Attempts to silence
I can’t breathe
My eyes cannot forget
A man’s death over loosie cigarettes
I can’t breathe
The glassy eyed stare at the onlookers
A badge meant to protect and serve
As he choked the life of a man
Another father
Another son
I can’t breathe
The words become louder
The crowds rise like an ocean tide
And somehow this feels different
It has to be different
A time for change
Hands up, don’t shoot
Bullets fly and pierce through flesh
A crime to be in one’s own home
When black
Black voices that can fill your soundtracks
Black hands that can catch your ball
Black bodies in your uniforms
Defending your freedoms
But you won’t extend the same liberties
Because of the color of their skin
So one voice
Becomes two
Which makes way for more
Until the voices of the unseen
Unheard
Drown out all others
The noise
All lives
Respect the flag
Simply veiled racism
And now the cover has been lifted
Exposing the wounds
Hundreds of years of injustice
For all to bear witness
Voices in unison
Black Lives Matter
Black Lives Matter
Black Lives Matter
Repeated
And Repeated
Until the words sink in and are truly heard

Notes of a Native Son

In keeping my promise to myself, I recently re-read James Baldwin’s collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son. The introduction, by Edward P. Jones, provided new insight into what had been an instinctive reaction on my part, that being related to Baldwin’s detached, philosophical approach to the white power structure and its relationship with Black America. The title of the recent PBS documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, suggests an explanation of the author’s designed separation from the center of the conversation.

Jones observes, “The militant me asked, for example, why would Baldwin write at times as if he were not black but some observer, a guilty one, true, but still an observer. ‘Our dehumanization of the Negro then,’ “he says to me in Many Thousands Gone,” ‘is indivisible from dehumanization of ourselves: the loss of our own identity is the price we pay for our annulment of his.’

Driven by the emotional and personal subject matter explored by Baldwin in his essays, it would be forgivable, and even expected, for him to assume a defensive and accusatory tone toward his oppressors. Instead, he places the white distortion in stark relief against the realities of American society, at the same time rejecting its central fabrication, the Negro. The “Negro”, and the “Negro problem” are a creation of the white man, and, as such, exist in his own mind. They are not recognized by Baldwin, except as a reference point to further support his argument.

Listen to how differently the above passage would sound had Baldwin not separated himself from the central myth:

Your dehumanization of me and my people then, is indivisible from dehumanization of yourself: the loss of your own identity is the price you pay for your annulment of mine.

In contrast, much of Notes of a Native Son rings with a very personal tone. James as individual is quite willing to share his first person recollections and impressions of his childhood, segregation, relationship with his father, his father’s funeral, his approach to Christianity, and his frightening experience in a French jail cell. ” It was quite clear to me that the Frenchmen in whose hands I found myself were no better or worse than their American counterparts.”

Baldwin also provides his critique of popular culture in his review of Carmen Jones, the film adaptation of Carmen, criticizing the use of an all black cast as a contrivance where the characters lack depth and connection to their shared black experience. He further notes that the actors were selected for their lighter complexions.

Baldwin is most openly critical in his review of two other popular works of literature, Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe and Native Son by Baldwin’s literary influence Richard Wright. While the stereotypical and dated characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin are easy targets, Baldwin’s stance on Wright’s main character, Bigger Thomas is eye-opening, to the point where several readers found his reaction extreme, mean-spirited, or in the case of Eldridge Cleever, even disingenuous. As a fan of both writers, I can understand Baldwin’s point of view, that the character of Bigger was overly violent, unsympathetic, and played to the black male stereotype of the times, without totally agreeing with it. However, even Baldwin had his limits:

“And there is, I should think, no Negro living in America who has not felt, briefly or for long periods, with anguish sharp or dull, in varying degrees and to varying effect, simple, naked and unanswerable hatred; who has not wanted to smash any white face he may encounter in a day, to violate, out of motives of the cruelest vengeance, their women, to break the bodies of all white people and bring them low, as low as that dust into which he himself has been and is being trampled; no Negro, finally, who has not had to make his own precarious adjustment to the “nigger” who surrounds him and to the “nigger” in himself.”

I am disappointed that James Baldwin’s influence and recognition as one of America’s greatest writers has faded, especially in the polarized environment that is 21st Century America. We need more contemplative and objective responses to balance the loose cannon, mindless Twitter blasts we are subjected to on a daily basis. Then again, respect and restraint have never been the hallmark of those in power.

james baldwin

Darkness of Skin

Sharing poem written by my son Cliff

The increased darkness of skin
akin to sin
We can judge a man
Beat a man
Kill a man
without repercussion
As long as he is justifiably dark enough to warrant such hatred
Words of hate
can freely exit the mouths of a lighter shade
and incite similar feelings
Mistrust
Misunderstanding
Misguided fear
if we continue to turn a blind eye
And continue our history of blind hatred

How can we live in the land of the free
Under the pretense of innocent until proven guilty
And watch men and women killed in plain sight
Because of the darkness of skin?

Our politicians speak without conscience
Our police act without consequence
Racial division in our everyday consciousness
And we are to pretend that this is not an ever growing problem?

If we are to grow
and succeed
How do we continue to make decisions based upon the darkness of skin?

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