A few years back and they told me Black
means a hole where other folks got brain it was like the cells in the heads of
Black children was out to every hour on the hour naps Scientists called the
phenomenon the Notorious Jensen Lapse, remember? Anyway I was thinking about how to devise a test for the wise like a Stanford-Binet for the CIA you know? Take Einstein being the most the unquestionable the outstanding the
maximal mind of the century right? And I’m struggling against this lapse leftover from my Black childhood to fathom why anybody should say so: E=mc squared? I try that on this old lady live on my block: She sweeping away
Saturday night from the stoop and mad as can be because some absolute jackass
have left a kingsize mattress where she have to sweep around it stains and
all she don’t want to know nothing about in the first place “Mrs. Johnson!” I say,
leaning on the gate between us: “What you think about somebody come up with an E
equals M C 2?” “How you doin,” she answer me, sideways, like she don’t want to let
on she know I ain’ combed my hair yet and here it is Sunday morning but still
I have the nerve to be bothering serious work with these crazy questions about “E
equals what you say again, dear?” Then I tell her, “Well also the same guy? I think
he was undisputed Father of the Atom Bomb!” “That right.” She mumbles or grumbles,
not too politely “And dint remember to wear socks when he put on his shoes!” I
add on (getting desperate) at which point Mrs. Johnson take herself
and her broom a very big step down the stoop away from me “And never did nothing for nobody in particular lessen it was a committee and used to say, ‘What time is
it?’ and you’d say, ‘Six o’clock.’ and he’d say, ‘Day or night?’ and and he never made nobody a cup of tea in his whole brilliant life! and
[my voice rises slightly] and he dint never boogie neither: never!” “Well,” say Mrs.
Johnson, “Well, honey, I do guess that’s genius for you.” Well I was extremely
young when I began to think of myself as a poet and I think that was the
consequence of growing up in an extremely religious house where the
Bible was something that you had to pretty much memorize as well as hear it
relatively endlessly on Sundays and also in daily prayers in our home and also
the result of my father forcing me to read people such as Paul Laurence Dunbar
and Shakespeare when I was really too young to understand what was being said
but I was able nonetheless to appreciate the sound of the language and I became
very excited about the sound possibilities of language. I never
received any encouragement either from my family or from teachers in school
until I guess I was an undergraduate at Barnard, really, but my friends, you know,
my playmates and boyfriends and what have you
were very excited about what I could do on demand more or less. I used to sell
poetry. Pick up a little change. And you would tell me what kind of thing you
wanted written, to whom and why, and I would–you know–it’s five cents, ten cents–that kind of thing. So I felt it was I felt it was a very profitable thing to do, I mean as a young child, actually. It was
something I could do, you know, the way other people could could build roller skate scooters really well that would go in straight lines–the only ones I
could build would go in circles–but I could do this. I could turn out what you needed for special occasions. The live reading
situation for me is the final criterion for my poetry. I mean by that that I
revise on the basis of audience response and whether there is a response or there
isn’t. –What that response is. –Yeah. Or people come up and say–you know–“I know what you were trying to do, but–” I listen to that of course. –So the reality, and the actual participation and so forth, the poetry as
an event, is important to you as opposed to something simply to be read. –Oh, no, it’s part of the part of the process as far as I’m– of creation. –Mm-hmm –An indispensable part of it for me. –Okay –Cause in other words I assume that in everything I write
whether it’s poetry or an essay I assume an audience. That is to say I assume that
interaction. –Mm-hm. –It’s not a personal event. –Mm-hm. –It’s an effort at conversation, at least, you know. –And you expect and want feedback from that. –Oh yeah. At least. Being a poet you are asking people to take their time to
listen to you and I don’t know why people should want to listen to me talk
about myself. It seems to me that at least I have to attempt to be talking
about something that clearly may involve more than myself. Hopefully many people
in the audience. The problem is right now that–I mean. as I see it, for me–is that
everything seems to me–everything political seems to me so urgent and of
such an emergency nature that I feel that whatever chance I have to talk with
people, you know, in large groups I should really try to express something
that has a kind of life-and-death implication. So, you know, whether that’s
about South Africa or lunches for school children or
or rape, or something, I should not be–I cannot–I don’t see how I can afford
to to be what I call trivial because these are not trivial times it seems to
me. I don’t mean to be an alarmist or anything but I really do think that this
is an apocalyptic moment in our history. I mean, American history. As regards the
poem on police violence. That poem presents some of my thinking on the
subject really of self-defense and I do feel that the Black community in America
has too long deferred a serious and fearless discussion of self-defense. I
really feel that. I mean, every other group in this country and every other interest
group in the world from the Defense Department of the United States, you know, to Tel Aviv feels perfectly comfortable to speak in terms of self-defense and to
do anything at all under that heading. But when Black people are concerned you
just say “Self-defense” and everyone becomes very upset and excited and the
black people who have uttered that phrase themselves become extremely
defensive and hasten to say, “I mean under these circumstances, and I’m not talking
about violence,” and so on. I don’t see anything wrong with violence in response
to violence at all. It seems to me that– as far as I’m concerned, it seems to me
that a non-violent response to violence has certainly been tested by Black
Americans in this country by now and I just wonder when are we going to assess
the meaning of that? Those results? I mean I think to
survive as a people you have to be tactically intelligent and you say “Well,
this is what I want.” For example, suppose I want a Voting Rights Act. And if we
do this and we get that then we say fine, that tactic works. Now I say, “I want my
children to be able to walk the streets unarmed and not be murdered by the
police.” All right? And we have rallies and so forth, and we have petitions, we have the policemen who murder unarmed black children going
through the courts and and and emerging exonerated by the court system, and I say,
“Well, clearly, some other tactic is necessary.” I mean that’s, that’s how I look
at it. There has not been ever a conviction of the perpetrator of state
violence against Black life. There has never been a conviction for manslaughter
even. Never! People who have been victimized become habituated to thinking
of themselves that way, you know? As victims. Let’s just think about it–just–
kind of–not exactly wallow but close to that, you know? Kind of just kind of
concentrate on what you don’t have, what you can’t do, what you don’t know, you
know what I mean? Which just to say the least is rather
self-defeating. I think rather, it–you know, and I think it does take an
extremely self-conscious effort to shake that and to concentrate rather on What
do I have? What can I do? What do I know? What access–you know, we have–just the public library system alone for instance in this country of America is an amazing
source of power. And, you know, ignorance is unforgivable in this country!
Americans now are just really just like overwhelmed–like, “What is happening, what can we do?” And you know and everybody’s tendency understandably is to try and
take care of yourself. Cover your back, make sure you have a house, you know, a door for the key. And I say that as understandable as that is, it seems
to me, we cannot afford to divorce ourselves from what is happening in
South Africa for example or for that matter what is happening in West Germany
or Poland any more than the Reagan administration divides these issues. I
think that the Reagan administration– people in that–they see everything in
global terms, you know. From Brooklyn to Angola is not a big jump for them at all.
And I say that I think that unless we the people begin to be able
rapidly to think in the same way, to make these connections really
on a visceral level, I fear for the survival of us as a species. People you know–should avail themselves of information on every
issue out here, whether–I mean, people should know what a neutron bomb is! Everybody! That’s not a white issue or a Black issue! That’s it! That’s it! You know what I mean? Are you kidding me? People say to me that nuclear energy is a white issue! You are out of your mind! [Laughter.] That’s like “Trees are a white issue.” [Laughs.] I mean, “And they can do whatever they want to the rivers, you know, as long as we have affirmative action.” You know? I mean, what are you saying? We can’t–no one can afford this. We can’t–that’s–that is a suicidal ghettoization of your mind.
For sure if there’s anything I want to do with my work it’s to encourage
people, if not kick them–you know, pull, drag, what have you, yank them–into
action, you know? I mean, life is action! Inaction is death! And at this time,
if you can’t see that at this specific instant of American history–if you
cannot see that, I think you’re already gone. Not a victim. Gone. Gone. –I was asked by students to ask you, as a Black woman writer, do you feel that you contribute
or have something special to bring to literature because you are a female? In
particular. Is there something simply because of that that you bring to
literature that’s necessary, or whatever? –Oh, yeah. –And what that is. That was the second part of the question that they told me to ask you. –Oh, I think we are–all of us–are used to
thinking of people who are persecuted and in some ways in some very serious
deep way stifled as minority peoples. And once you understand that the
status of women historically and universally has been and continues to be
what it is, which is that of a despised group, and you understand that we are
talking about 51% of human life on this planet then I begin–I think you begin to
see that there are some possibilities here for radical change around the globe
at least on the basis of strength. –Do you see for example in this country there’s
been sort of differences say between different communities and the feminist
movement. Do you see those differences changing? –I would hope. What I would hope–I would hope that more and more people would–women, feminists, Black people, workers–would
understand that hatred and power used to manipulate other people are all of our
enemies and to some extent all of us, all of us, possess these sins within our own
spirits and it’s–we have to expunge that from ourselves. Our own racism, our
own sexism. And at the same time we have to stop acting like victims in order to
stop being victims.