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An Interview With Afaa Weaver

The Personal as Political

by DOUGLAS VALENTINE

In the last installment of the Political Poetry series, Russian poet Elena Fanailova stressed that social structures, the level of maturity of a society as a whole, and the level of responsibility of its members, impact our lives as much as what is political.   She also advanced the second-wave feminist idea that what is personal is political.

In American “democracy,” the stated goal is to organize and manage government so people can pursue happiness.   After 230 years, this goal is manifest as ideological gridlock: House Republicans, through gerrymandering, do their best to disenfranchise black communities, while Democratic Party leaders pander to black voters and then vanish after elections, along with their promises.

Poet Afaa Weaver (b 1950) grew up in Baltimore in the last years of official segregation.  As he notes, black Americans are now free to move around the country, although where they land still has a lot to do with what they can say, and how people will interpret it. 

In an essay written this year, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/article/245930 Weaver tells how he found himself at a poetry reading for the Harvard African Law Association.  The room was packed with students, many of them immigrants or second-generation youngsters from Africa and the Caribbean.  “Living in the American academic world as a black man,” he said, “I have become accustomed to being the only black person, or one of a few, and here I was in a situation much like that of my childhood, when I went to an all-black elementary school.  This was diasporic blackness, two generations removed from the pan-African conversations I learned about in the 1960s and 1970s, but here was blackness with an apparent kinship.  I read a poem of mine, “To Malcolm X on His Second Coming,” one I seldom read because I don’t often have audiences like these, people I think can understand.” 

Here is how Weaver’s poem, “To Malcolm X on His Second Coming,” begins: http://www.academicroom.com/article/poetry:

 

Malcolm X, alias El Hajj Malik El Shabazz,

alias Malcolm Little, alias Detroit Red—

                                                                   Deceased!

 

The coffin breaks, fingers wriggle through clay,

touch the light. A chiseled face comes full with flesh,

eyes roaming the landscape of his own prophecy.

Negroes in their Infinity’s, Benzes, and BMWs,

chains of gold around their necks, fifty tons of gold

for teeth, sneakers handmade in the glass pavilions

of murderers.  Hip-hop stirring the empty souls.

Up from this tomb in our lost hopes, he stands

and prays into Allah’s outstretched hands for mercy.

 

In the poem, Weaver employs Malcolm, a fearless champion of black liberation from white oppression, to make a point not only about race and class politics, but about an “empty soul” that needs revitalizing.   It is a theme that reoccurs in his poetry.   And it’s personal, as well as political.

As Weaver explains, “If any poem of mine owns the central space in my psyche, it’s “To Malcolm X on His Second Coming.”  When I read it or even think about it, I feel more genuine and authentic in my emotions and attitudes.  Although I respect Dr. King, I have never been able to write as passionately about him.  Malcolm X takes me home to East Baltimore and to the rural south of my parents.  It’s no coincidence that, after 18 years of holding onto it, I published that poem in 1998 in African American Review, after first drafting it in 1980 on the inside back cover of Amiri Baraka’s first selected edition published by William Morrow.  In 1998 I came into conscious contact with the incest.  Half memories revealed themselves, and that maternal uncle rose up like a buried monster.”

Each of the first three stanzas in the poem has a chorus, a voice from the plantation past: the daughter of privilege asking her slave Liza why she turned in the runaways.   “This is why he came back,” the poet explains: to remind us of the past.  Malcolm takes stock of his unfinished business in present day Harlem until, in the third stanza:

 

….In a glimmer an angel settles

on his shoulder, as small as a pin but with a voice like

a choir singing. “No more grief, blessed son, no more grief.”

Malcolm falls to the pavement, sobbing for Elijah.

 

Malcolm is a symbol of Weaver’s love for black Americans, as well as his love for Malcolm the man who willed his personal and political transformation from prisoner to spokesman for a  generation of black Americans.  The poem paints a bleak picture of black America today, and ends with an ironic image of redemption within reach, if only the next generation would listen to the Master they never knew:

 

Caravans form in the streets, unloading

the unconscious souls.  The open eyes of the living dead

stare from windows and shops at this voice

that is in every doorway, this body that is the landscape,

as if the city is now flesh.  In one moment he is there,

and then he is gone, letting their bodies go softly

back into time.  Negroes wonder what has been

among them and is now gone.  Malcolm sits on steps

on Convent Avenue, again just another man.

An old woman pulling a cart comes to him, touches

his head, and both of them vanish into Allah’s wish.

 

The wise among us chant the filling of our life with life,

take this fragment of a gift from heaven and anoint

the heads of the young, who are our promise to live—

 

Teach, Master, teach. Teach, Master, teach.

Teach, Master, teach. Wa Alaikum Salaam (what does this mean?).

 

Understanding how political and social forces intertwine begins with the realization Malcolm had: that one must educate oneself and take personal responsibility.   This is no easy task, when minds are roiled in media turbulence, Mandelstam’s “noise of the times,” or weighed down by personal traumas – in Weaver’s case, an inability to love himself, the result of having been sexually abused as a child.

“I knew there was something, but I didn’t know how to name it,” Weaver explained in an interview with the Boston Globe.  http://boston.com/ae/books/articles/2007/12/11/a_poet_forged_in_heartbreak/

“I had the ironic situation of being a poet who could not sit down with you and talk honestly about my feelings.”

Weaver began to find his voice in Paris in 1985, after 15 years working in a warehouse in Baltimore, honing his writing skills.   And what he discovered in Paris, upon reflection, was that his ability to form words into poems derived not from childhood traumas.  The gift of expression was always there; the traumas were the anvil upon which his craft was forged.

“Still,” he explained, “I was left with questions of home in a world where hybridity seems unavoidable. Black people navigate between and inside foreign cultures, even when the people in those cultures look like us.  As black people, we often forget our own diversity.  I read Kamau Brathwaite’s “Trench Town Rock,” Wole Soyinka’s “Idanre,” or Derek Walcott’s” Omeros,” and I know my context is different, an American otherness that is inside the African diaspora and yet outside it in terms of subjectivity.  A black poet needs a largeness, a soul strength the size of parallel worlds, to embrace this United States, which is itself both inside “America” and outside it, as Neruda’s “Canto General” should remind readers.”

Nigerian playwright Osonye Tess Onwueme gave Michael S. Weaver, son of a sharecropper’s son, the African name Afaa, meaning “oracle.”  In the years that have followed, Weaver has published multiple books of poetry and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize.  He has been a Fulbright scholar, and was the first African-American poet to be named poet in residence at Bucknell University. 

Weaver’s philosophy has been further shaped by a deep immersion in Tai Chi and Chinese literature, which he embraced after being diagnosed with congestive heart failure in 1995.   At Simmons College, where he now teaches, he cofounded the Zora Neale Hurston Literary Center, and launched the International Chinese Poetry Conference.

His work continues to develop the parallel themes of his personal life as poet, and his public life as a black man in America, as evident in the poem “American Income”:

 

The survey says all groups can make more money

if they lose weight except black men…men of other colors

and women of all colors have more gold, but black men

are the summary of weight, a lead thick thing on the scales,

meters spinning until they ring off the end of the numbering

of accumulation, how things grow heavy, fish on the

ends of lines that become whales, then prehistoric sea life

beyond all memories, the billion days of human hands

working, doing all the labor one can imagine, hands

now the population of cactus leaves on a papyrus moon

waiting for the fire, the notes from all their singing gone

up into the salt breath of tears of children that dry, rise

up to be the crystalline canopy of promises, the infinite

gone fishing days with the apologies for not being able to love

anymore, gone down inside earth somewhere where

women make no demands, have fewer dreams of forever,

these feet that marched and ran and got cut off, these hearts

torn out of chests by nameless thieves, this thrashing

until the chaff is gone out and black men know the gold

of being the dead center of things, where pain is the gateway

to Jerusalems, Bodhi trees, places for meditation and howling,

keeping the weeping heads of gods in their eyes.

 

I recently had the honor of talking to Weaver about race, class, and poetry.

DV:     An aunt told of your grandmother standing guard over your father and his father’s brothers when they played in the yard, to prevent white men from snatching them and shipping them out into dead-end lives as 20th-century slaves on work farms and in mines.   This is what haunts America, as you say in American Income: “feet that marched and ran and got cut off, these hearts/ torn out of chests by nameless thieves.” 

You present this history and consciousness in “The Wisconsin Project: a tapestry of poems depicting the history of Maafa, the African Holocaust, and the culture of African Americans.”   The Wisconsin Project was commissioned by the Kenosha Congress of Poets for Peace in Kenosha, Wisconsin.   Please tell us how this series of poems came to be, and how you formed them.

AW:     While on a year-long sabbatical in 2012, I was asked by members of the Peace Congress in Wisconsin to write a poem about African American history.  I had been working on a memoir for most of the year and was mostly done with that.  I had only a little left to write, so I took the opportunity to get back to my poetry.  I decided I would do a series, enough for a chapbook, and play with an idea inspired years ago by Goethe’s “Faust” in terms of structure.  That masterpiece of his contains a whole spectrum of poetic forms.  I wanted to use both formalist and non-formalist structures and base it in history.  I started with a story of the matriarch of my father’s family.  This story was related to me by his oldest sister before she passed, my Aunt Janet.  She said a little girl named Phoebe (or Febe) was taken with her sister from Africa and separated never to see each other again.  In the black South, elders would impart history to the oldest siblings often rather than the younger.  I was the oldest child, and when Aunt Janet passed no one else knew the story.  So I thought I would see if there was any historical support, at least for the general idea of the story.  When I searched the Emory University website devoted to the records of the Atlantic slave trade, I discovered the slave ship Jesus Maria had over 200 children, most of them between eight and twelve years old.  I saw names that might have been pronounced as Phoebe.  I set the dates for the search around the time she might have been sold and came up with that ship.  I was so upset by the idea of that ship full of children that I had to take a week and a half to gather myself.  Then I began the series with the kidnapping of the children, using my imagination to summon what I thought the parents must have felt to see their children snatched by other Africans and taken to the Europeans. 

DV     In the poem, “In Charleston, the Slave Market,” you say:

 

A mother speaks to a dream that speaks to her

on an Igbo bed, tell me where my children are,

she asks of the air that makes itself a door

beyond the door over the last touch, the last

smell of her children’s hair full of sun, speckled

with dirt from playing, how do they eat now?

she asks of the dream, but the dream is too kind

to tell the truth, the markets where they stand naked,

white women poking at them, looking over places

only mothers should touch, shopping for black pets

for white children, for girls who can grow and make

more black children, as if they are gardens, and what

gardens they are to a mother on her Igbo bed who asks

her husband, old man who cannot make children,

what do we do? shall we stop speaking

 

DV:     You capture, quite eloquently, the misery of this woman in Africa, mourning the loss of her children to slavery.  Why is it necessary for people to keep speaking of this holocaust?

AW:     The Western way of life as we know it is built on the African Holocaust, or Maafa.  The greed and arrogance that lie inside the slave trade, and subverted what we may perceive as good intentions in the western notion of progress, have brought us to where we are.  And it wasn’t just Europeans.  Africans sold each other too.   This Western idea of progress, based on industrialization and technology, appeals to most people; but given the fact of the crisis in our environment brought about by industrialization, we need to look seriously at what created and drives our world so that we can correct it and leave something better for the children. 

That is a grand operatic way of looking at it, but I speak as a lay poet.  And as a poet let me say also that the African Holocaust is an entity in the American consciousness that gets transmitted and sustained by denial.  The very system created by slavery uses the same exploitative strategy on whatever group it can.  It’s like a giant feeder that moves over the world—or the market—looking for ways to sustain itself.  If poverty in the world were relieved in a genuine way, it would look differently than people in India fighting to be long distance customer service providers for corporations.  There are natural laws of harmonic play that our profit-driven system is tearing apart, and the very ability to tear it apart was founded in chattel slavery and the largest redistribution of human beings in recorded history. The world is out of balance.

In a city such as Detroit, I think reparations could work as an incentive for accomplished high school students who want to go to college.  They could have their tuition waved with the understanding that they would spend two years working in community development projects after graduation.  They could do the two years in segments over a period of time.  The city would be given over to a revitalization plan geared toward providing a sustainable community for people of modest means.  Then black folk could be invited to help restore their communities, including through urban agriculture. 

Some sort of progressive social contract has to be made between the privileged and those less privileged so that revitalizing the cities is more than an avenue for building nice places for the privileged and displacing the poor. 

I see reparations as part of a whole urban policy.  It is a bit utopian, but we need to dream that way.  Earth is in peril under the weight of a system built on the colonization of most of the known world and a system of slavery with unimaginable degrees of cruelty, but we all have to cooperate if we are going to survive and leave a livable world for our children and generations to come.

DV:    In the Jardin du Luxembourg you were able to turn your lyric eye onto yourself in a way that you had previously dismissed as bourgeois.   You made your way into the space of being literary from a proletarian base.  You faced it and used it; what you call your “rootedness, black and working-class, black and blue.”  As you began to define yourself, you became free to find your voice as a poet.  How important is the study of language and poetry in finding and following this path to free expression, and thus, self-realization?

AW:   For a people with a history of suffering racial oppression such as African Americans, the history of the language is a history of resistance, resilience and determination to build a culture out of the adverse relationship to the dominant culture.  Part of the problem is that black language and culture are often perceived as inferior.  As a result of this perceived inferiority, some black poets avoid using language that appears as eloquence.  I believe that is what led younger poets in the 60’s to attack Robert Hayden.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Hayden

This avoidance was the tragedy of the Black Arts Movement.   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Arts_Movement   Many black poets fell into the trap of believing a kinship with the masses could legitimize a move away from eloquence and some levels of complexity.  What happens, I believe, is that certain kinds of political poetry end up adding to the problem.  Gwendolyn Brooks, for example, was coaxed into writing more accessible work. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gwendolyn_Brooks

I spent fifteen years working in factories in Baltimore, as one of the people the political poets thought they were speaking to.   And what I learned is that the oppressed need to be educated.

I feel like I have spent these 45 years of my writing life at the tipping point in African American poetry, at a place where the urge to touch the proletarian vernacular at its deepest point inspired a poetic project issuing from, and in celebration of, that base.  I don’t think anyone else has done it the way that I have, and I suppose that is my embodiment of the personal as political.  I come from a working class base that is further defined by my experience as an incest survivor who is chock full of vernacular language rooted in my southern agrarian family with its blues modality.

For me it is the politics of the body transgressed and violated by and from within the language of black folk as an historically oppressed people.  In other words, I have always fought for my love of black people, despite the fact that my love for my people has been complicated by the excessive loyalty that is an intrinsic part of being sexually abused as a child and having as the perpetrator a member of my own extended family.

DV     In your poem “Blues in Five/Four, the Violence in Chicago” (which was awarded a Pushcart Prize for 2013) http://www.afaamweaver.com/  you say in the first two stanzas:

 

In movies about the end of our civilization

toys fill the broken spaces of cities, flipping over

in streets where children are all hoodlums, big kids

painting themselves in neon colors, while the women

laugh, following the men into a love of madness.

 

Still shots show emptiness tearing the eyes of the last

of us who grew to be old, the ones the hoodlums

prop up in shadows, throwing garbage at us,

taping open our eyes, forcing us to study the dead

in photos torn from books in burned down libraries.

 

DV     There is a surreal quality to this poem, as well as an attempt to face facts, including the toxic waste systems located near communities of people of color and the poor.   At times it seems like a degraded environment and soaring incarceration rates are the modern manifestation of Jim Crow segregation.  What are your feelings on this largely political subject?

AW     The hideous drug policies of this country have fostered a cultural malaise in the cities that needs to be attended to without indulging corporate greed.  I would like to see clemency for African Americans who have been incarcerated under the unfair set of drug laws in effect now.  With that clemency I’d like to see them given access to job training and therapy aimed at helping them re-enter the community.  Drug laws should be revised, and I am in favor of repealing prohibition for cocaine and heroin.  The profit incentive has to be removed. 

But there’s more to it than that.  The feeling in the back community is that drugs were shipped in deliberately.  However, there is a problem in that conspiracy theory, namely that black people very often worked to bring in the drugs.  I do think some eyes on high levels were shut to what was going on while there were perhaps “some” deliberate individual actions on the part of people given to malevolence. 

The greater question is the economic inequity that is built into the system.  African Americans were never compensated for the work they accomplished and the wealth white people enjoyed as a result of slavery.  At the end of the Civil War blacks were free to move around, but challenged with inequity and very little resources.  Each movement forward has been met with backlash.

Segregation was a bad thing, but blacks also built a positive culture inside that system.  The problem is that integration only expanded, into white communities, the limitations of being black.  The problems of racial prejudice were not removed.  White women have benefited most from Civil Rights in terms of income and job access.  But black men, as I talk about in the poem “American Income”, have made few advances overall.

The other problem is that integration ironically supported the misconception that placing black children with white children would help them academically.  The result of that is all around us.  Boston was one of the last school systems to integrate and now it is one of the most dysfunctional and segregated.   That’s what I mean by backlash.  In Boston I have to negotiate with white liberal friends who have convinced themselves they are not racists but will proceed to try to erase my own narrative of my own life by saying there is no difference between our lives.  One friend sat in my office at the college and said that I wouldn’t be there were it not for my degree from Brown, as if only white Ivy League universities have high standards.  They don’t realize how aggressive and hurtful they are being, and in the name of friendship I journey on with them.  But sometimes I need a break.  It is not everyone, but Boston has that reputation for liberal racism.  My point here is that we need a massive campaign of compassionate honesty based on the fact that blacks cannot be racist because racism requires privilege.  Blacks can express racial anger and resentment, but that’s not an excuse for whites to let themselves off the hook.  The planet is at stake.

DV:     What are the challenges black people face in modern America, where we are told the past is meaningless and where we are paralyzed, in the present, by relentless, ubiquitous advertisements telling us that happiness is just a purchase away?   How is it possible to attract young people to read poetry and pursue spiritual rather than material happiness?

AW:     We have to get out and engage young people and talk to them.  If I should ever get elevated to a position of greater exposure via some national recognition of my poetry, I would use that visibility to get out and talk to young people, to try to motivate and inspire them.  There is art, which I love, but there is the actual hard, hard work of connecting as a person and not a famous poet.

Consider the world view of African people as described by John Mbiti, the well-known theologian from Kenya.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Mbiti   Since we’ve talked so much about slavery and those who were enslaved, I’d like to end with a quote from Mbiti to show what African Americans must remember about the “original cultural difference,” and remember it as a kind of mantra.  It is opposite to the dismissal of the past and the focus on a thingified future.

“The question of time is of little or no academic concern to African peoples in their traditional life…What has not taken place or what has no likelihood of an immediate occurrence falls in the category of “No-time.”  What is certain to occur, or what falls within the rhythm of natural phenomena, is in the category of inevitable or potential time.  The most significant consequence of this is that, according to traditional concepts, time is a two-dimensional phenomenon, with a long past, a present and virtually no future.” (John S. Mbiti, “African Religions and Philosophy”)

So what a glorious and somewhat amusing irony it would be, if the worldview that proves most helpful in turning this system around, is the one its creators worked so hard to suppress and destroy.  What a supreme irony in a kind of Daoist testimony, especially if we could get people like Kendrick Lamar, whose work I like, to understand and embody this and other very important ways of considering life. 

DV:   Thank you Afaa Weaver, for your extraordinary poetry and personal insights.

Afaa Weaver is a veteran of fifteen years as a factory worker in his native Baltimore.  A poet, playwright, and translator, his 12th and most recent collection of poetry is The Government of Nature (U Pitt Press 2013).  He has received two Pushcart prizes and a Fulbright appointment, among other honors. He currently holds an endowed chair at Simmons College.  His website:  www.afaamweaver.com

One of Weaver’s poems will appear in the forthcoming anthology, “With Our Eyes Wide Open: Poems of the New American Century” (West End Press, March 2014).   For information about pre-ordering the anthology, contact John Crawford at jcrawfor@unm.edu

For information about the Political Poetry series, visit http://www.douglasvalentine.com/disc.htm