This is the full audio book of James Baldwin’s the Fire Next Time (1963) read by Jesse L. Martin. The Fire Next Time is a book by James Baldwin. It contains two essays: “My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation,” ( 0:00 – 12:00 ) and “Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind” ( 12:00 – ). Copyright Disclaimer Under Section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976, allowance is made for “fair use” for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Fair use is a use permitted by copyright statute that might otherwise be infringing. Non-profit, educational or personal use tips the balance in favor of fair use.
Maya Angelou: Image making is very important for every human being. It is especially important for black American women in that we are, by being black, a minority in the United States, and by being female, the less powerful of the genders. So, we have two areas we must address. If we look out of our eyes at the immediate world around us, we see whites and males in dominant roles. We need to see our mothers, aunts, our sisters, and grandmothers.
We need to see Frances Harper, Sojourner Truth, Fannie Lou Hamer, women of our heritage. We need to have these women preserved. We need them all:
… Constance Motley, Etta Motten. … All of these women are important as role models. Depending on our profession, some may be even more important.
Zora Neale Hurston means a great deal to me as a writer. So does Josephine Baker, but not in the same way because her profession is not directly related to mine. Yet I would imagine for someone like Diahann Carroll or Diana Ross, Miss Baker must mean a great deal. I would imagine that Bessie Smith and Mammie Smith, though they are important to me, would be even more so to Aretha Franklin.
If I were a black male writer, I would think of Frederick Douglass, who was not just a politician, but as a writer was stunning. In the nineteenth century I would think of William Wells Brown, Martin Delaney, and certainly David Walker, who showed not only purpose but method. In the twentieth century I would think of Richard Wright, Jean Toomer, and so on. They mean a great deal to me. I’m black, and they experienced America as blacks.
These particular writers may mean more to the black male writer, just as I imagine Jack Johnson would mean a great deal to Jesse Owens, and Jesse Owens a great deal to Arthur Ashe.
Claudia Tate: When you write, are you particularly conscious of preserving certain kinds of images of black people?
Maya Angelou: Well, I am some time, though I can’t actually say when this happens in the creation of the work. I make writing as much a part of my life as I do eating or listening to music. Once I left church, and as I walked down the street, three young black women stopped me and asked if I would have a glass of wine with them. I said, “Yes.” One is a painter; one is an actress, and one a singer. We talked, and when I started to leave, I tried to tell them what it means to me to see young black women. I tried to tell them, but I could hardly explain it. My eyes filled with tears. In one way, it means all the work, all the loneliness and discipline my work exacts, demands, is not in vain. It also means, in a more atavistic, absolutely internal way, that I can never die. It’s like living through children. So when I approach a piece of work, that is in my approach, whether it’s a poem that might appear frivolous or is a serious piece. In my approach I take as fact that my work will be carried on.
Claudia Tate: Did you envision young Maya as a symbolic character for every black girl growing up in America?
Maya Angelou: Yes, after a while I did. It’s a strange condition, being an autobiographer and a poet. I have to be so internal, and yet while writing, I have to be apart from the story so that I don’t fall into indulgence. Whenever I speak about the books, I always think in terms of the Maya character.
When I wrote the teleplay of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I would refer to the Maya character so as not to mean me. It’s damned difficult for me to preserve this distancing. But it’s very necessary.
Claudia Tate: What has been the effect of the women’s movement on black women?
Maya Angelou: Black women and white women are in strange positions in our separate communities.
In the social gatherings of black people, black women have always been predominant. That is to say, in the church it’s always Sister Hudson, Sister Thomas and Sister Witheringay who keep the church alive. In lay gatherings it’s always Lottie who cooks, and Mary who’s going over to Bonita’s where there is a good party going on. Also, black women are the nurturers of children in our community. White women are in a different position in their social institutions. White men, who are in effect their fathers, husbands, brothers, their sons, nephews and uncles, say to white women, or imply in any case: “I don’t really need you to run my institutions. I need you in certain places and in those places you must be kept–in the bedroom, in the kitchen, in the nursery, and on the pedestal.” Black women have never been told this. Black women have not historically stood in the pulpit, but that doesn’t undermine the fact that they built the churches and maintain the pulpits. The people who have historically been heads of institutions in black communities have never said to black women–and they, too, are their fathers, husbands, brothers, their sons, nephews and uncles–“We don’t need you in our institutions.” So there is a fundamental difference.
One of the problems I see that faces black women in the eighties, just as it has in the past two decades, has been dealt with quite well in Michele Wallace’s Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman. A number of black men in the sixties fell for a terrible, terrible ploy. They felt that in order to be total and free and independent and powerful, they had to be like white men to their women. So there was a terrible time when black men told their women that if you really love me, you must walk three steps behind me.
I try to live what I consider a “poetic existence.” That means I take responsibility for the air I breathe and the space I take up. I try to be immediate, to be totally present for all my work. I try. This interview with you is a prime example of this. I am withdrawing from the grief that awaits me over the death of someone dear so that I can be present for you, for myself, for your work and for the people who will read it, so I can tell you exactly how I feel and what I think and try to answer your questions cheerfully–if I feel cheerful–as I can. That to me is poetic. I try for concentrated consciousness which I miss by more than half, but I’m trying.
Claudia Tate: How do you fit writing into your life?
Maya Angelou: Writing is a part of my life; cooking is a part of my life. Making love is a part of my life; walking down the street is a part of it. Writing demands more time, but it takes from all of these other activities. They all feed into the writing. I think it’s dangerous to concern oneself too damned much with “being an artist.” It’s more important to get the work done. You don’t have to concern yourself with it, just get it done. The pondering pose–the back of the hand glued against the forehead–is baloney.
People spend more time posing than getting the work done. The work is all there is. And when it’s done, then you can laugh, have a pot of beans, stroke some child’s head, or skip down the street.
Claudia Tate: What is your responsibility as a writer?
Maya Angelou: My responsibility as a writer is to be as good as I can be at my craft.
So I study my craft. I don’t simply write what I feel, let it all hang out. That’s baloney. That’s no craft at all. Learning the craft, understanding what language can do, gaining control of the language, enables one to make people weep, make them laugh, even make them go to war. You can do this by learning how to harness the power of the word. So studying my craft is one of my responsibilities. The other is to be as good a human being as I possibly can be so that once I have achieved control of the language, I don’t force my weaknesses on a public who might then pick them up and abuse themselves.
During the sixties some lecturers went to universities and took thoughtless liberties with young people. They told them “to turn on, tune in and drop out.” People still do that. They go to universities and students will ask them, “Mr. So-and-So, Ms./Miss./Mrs./Brother/Sister So-and-So, these teachers here at this institution aren’t happening, like what should we do?” Many lecturers have said, “Don’t take it! Walk out! Let your protest be seen.”
That lecturer then gets on a plane, first-class, with a double scotch on-the-rocks, jets off to San Juan, Puerto Rico, for a few days’ rest, then travels to some other place where he or she is being paid two to three thousand dollars to speak. Those young people risk and sometimes lose their scholastic lives on that zoom because somebody’s been irresponsible. I loathe that. I will not do it. I am responsible. I am trying to be responsible.
So first, I’m always trying to be a better human being, and second, I continue to learn my craft. Then, when I have something positive to say, I can say it beautifully. That’s my responsibility.
Do you see any distinctions in the ways black male and female writers dramatize their themes and select significant events? This is a general question, but perhaps there is some basis for analysis. Gayl Jones responded to this question by saying she thought women tended to deal with events concerning the family, the community, personal events, that were not generally thought to be important by male writers. She said that male writers tended to select “representative” events for the significant events in their works.
Claudia Tate: Toni Bambara said she thought women writers were concerned with developing a circumscribed place from which the story would unfold. Have you observed such patterns in your reading?
Maya Angelou: I find those observations interesting. In fact, the question is very interesting.
I think black male writers do deal with the particular, but we are so conditioned by a sexist society that we tend to think when they do so that they mean it representationally; and when black females deal with the particular they only mean it as such. Whether we look at works by Richard Wright, James Baldwin, or John Killens–I’m thinking of novelists–we immediately say this is a generalization; this is meant as an overview, a microcosmic view of the world at large. Yet, if we look at works by Toni Morrison or Toni Bambara, if we look at Alice Walker’s work or Hurston’s, Rosa Guy’s, Louise Meriwether’s, or Paule Marshall’s, we must say that these works are meant as general statements, universal statements. If Daddy Was a Numbers Runner [by Louise Meriwether] is not a microcosm of a macrocosm, I don’t know what it is. If Paule Marshall’s Chosen Place and Timeless People is not a microcosm, I don’t know what it is. I don’t know what Ruby [by Rosa Guy] is if it is not a microcosm of a larger world. I see everybody’s work as an example of the particular, which is indicative of the general.
I don’t see any difference really. Whether it’s Claude Brown’s or Gayl Jones’s. I can look at Manchild in the Promised Land and at Corregidora and see that these writers are talking about particular situations and yet about the general human condition. They are instructive for the generalities of our lives. Therefore, I won’t indulge inherent distinctions between men and women writers.
Claudia Tate: Do you consider your quartet to be autobiographical novels or autobiographies?
Maya Angelou: They are autobiographies. When I wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I wasn’t thinking so much about my own life or identity. I was thinking about a particular time in which I lived and the influences of that time on a number of people. I kept thinking, what about that time? What were the people around young Maya doing? I used the central figure–myself–as a focus to show how one person can make it through those times.
I really got roped into writing The Caged Bird. At that time I was really only concerned with poetry, though I’d written a television series. Anyway, James Baldwin took me to a party at Jules Feiffer’s house. It was just the four of us: Jimmy Baldwin and me, Jules Feiffer and his wife, at that time Judy Feiffer. We sat up until three or four o’clock in the morning, drinking scotch and telling tales. The next morning Judy Feiffer called a friend of hers at Random House and said, “You know the poet, Maya Angelou?
If you can get her to write a book …” Then Robert Loomis at Random House phoned, and I said, “No, I’m not interested.” I went out to California and produced my series for WNET. Loomis called two or three times, and I said, “No, I’m not interested. Thank you so much.” Then, I’m sure he talked to Baldwin because he used a ploy which I’m not proud to say I haven’t gained control of yet. He called and said, “Miss Angelou, it’s been nice talking to you. I’m rather glad you decided not to write an autobiography because to write an autobiography as literature is the most difficult thing anyone could do.” I said, “I’ll do it.” Now that’s an area I don’t have control of yet at this age. The minute someone says I can’t, all my energy goes up and I say, what? What? I’m still unable to say that you may be wrong and walk away. I’m not pleased with that. I want to get beyond that.
Claudia Tate: How did you select the events to present in the autobiographies?
Maya Angelou: Some events stood out in my mind more than others. Some, though, were never recorded because they either were so bad or so painful, that there was no way to write about them honestly and artistically without making them melodramatic. They would have taken the book off its course. All my work, my life, everything is about survival. All my work is meant to say, “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.” In fact, the encountering may be the very experience which creates the vitality and the power to endure.
Claudia Tate: You are a writer, poet, director, composer, lyricist, dancer, singer, journalist, teacher and lecturer. Can you say what the source of such creative diversity is?
Maya Angelou: I don’t do the dancing anymore. The rest I try. I believe talent is like electricity. We don’t understand electricity. We use it. Electricity makes no judgment. You can plug into it and light up a lamp, keep a heart pump going, light a cathedral, or you can electrocute a person with it. Electricity will do all that. It makes no judgment. I think talent is like that. I believe every person is born with talent. I believe anyone can learn the craft of painting and paint.
I believe all things are possible for a human being, and I don’t think there’s anything in the world I can’t do. Of course, I can’t be five feet four because I’m six feet tall. I can’t be a man because I’m a woman. The physical gifts are given to me, just like having two arms is a gift. In my creative source, whatever that is, I don’t see why I can’t sculpt. Why shouldn’t I? Human beings sculpt. I’m a human being. I refuse to indulge any man-made differences between myself and another human being. I will not do it. I’m not going to live very long. If I live another fifty years, it’s not very long. So I should indulge somebody else’s prejudice at their whim and not for my own convenience! Never happen! Not me!
Claudia Tate: How do you integrate protest in your work?
Maya Angelou: Protest is an inherent part of my work. You can’t just not write about protest themes or not sing about them. It’s a part of life. If I don’t agree with a part of life, then my work has to address it.
I remember in the early fifties I read a book, Dom Casmurro. It was written by Machado De Assis, a nineteenth-century Brazilian. I thought it was very good. A month later I thought about the book and went back and reread it.
Two months later I read the book again, and six months later I realized the sensation that I had had while reading the book was as if I had walked down to a beach to watch a sunset. I had watched the sunset and turned around, only to find that while I had been standing there the tide had come in over my head. I decided to write like that. I would never get on a soapbox; instead, I would pull in the reader. My work is intended to be slowly absorbed into the system on deeper and deeper levels.
Claudia Tate: Would you describe your writing process?
Maya Angelou: I usually get up at about 5:30, and I’m ready to have coffee by 6, usually with my husband. He goes off to his work around 6:30, and I go off to mine.
I keep a hotel room in which I do my work–a tiny, mean room with just a bed, and sometimes, if I can find it, a face basin. I keep a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards and a bottle of sherry in the room. I try to get there around 7, and I work until 2 in the afternoon. If the work is going badly, I stay until 12:30. If it’s going well, I’ll stay as long as it’s going well. It’s lonely, and it’s marvelous. I edit while I’m working.
When I come home at 2, I read over what I’ve written that day, and then try to put it out of my mind. I shower, prepare dinner, so that when my husband comes home, I’m not totally absorbed in my work. We have a semblance of a normal life. We have a drink together and have dinner. Maybe after dinner I’ll read to him what I’ve written that day. He doesn’t comment.
I don’t invite comments from anyone but my editor, but hearing it aloud is good. Sometimes I hear the dissonance; then I’ll try to straighten it out in the morning. When I’ve finished the creative work and the editing and have six hundred handwritten pages, I send it to my editor. Then we both begin to work. I’ve kept the same editor through six books. We have a relationship that’s kind of famous among publishers, since oftentimes writers shift from one publisher to another for larger advances. I just stay with my own editor, and we’ll be together as long as he and I are alive. He understands my work rhythm, and I understand his. We respect each other, but the nitpicking does come. He’ll say, “This bothers me–on page twelve, line three, why do you have a comma there? Do you mean to break the flow?”
Claudia Tate: How do you feel about your past works?
Maya Angelou: Generally, I forget them. I’m totally free of them. They have their own life. I’ve done well by them, or I did the best I could, which is all I can say. I’m not cavalier about work anymore than I am about sitting here with you, or cooking a meal, or cleaning my house. I’ve tried to be totally present, so that when I’m finished with a piece of work, I’m finished.
I remember one occasion when we were in New York City at the Waldorf Astoria some years ago. I think I was with my sister friends–Rosa [Guy], Paule [Marshall] and Louise [Meriwether]. We were sitting at a table near the bandstand during some tribute for someone, and I felt people staring at me. Someone was singing, say, stage left, and some people were performing a dance. It was very nice, but I felt people staring; so I turned around, and they were. My sister friends were all smiling. I wondered what was happening. I had been following the performance. Well, it turned out that the singer was doing a piece of mine, and they had choreographed a dance to it. I had forgotten the work altogether. The work, once completed, does not need me. The work I’m working on needs my total concentration. The one that’s finished doesn’t belong to me anymore. It belongs to itself.
Claudia Tate: Would you comment on your title selections?
Maya Angelou: As you probably know, the title I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is from [Paul Lawrence] Dunbar’s “Sympathy.” Gather Together in My Name, though it does have a biblical origin, comes from the fact I saw so many adults lying to so many young people, lying in their teeth, saying, “You know, when I was young, I never would have done … Why I couldn’t … I shouldn’t … ” Lying. Young people know when you’re lying; so I thought for all those parents and non-parents alike who have lied about their past, I will tell it.
Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas comes from a time in the twenties and thirties when black people used to have rent parties.
On Saturday night from around nine when they’d give these parties, through the next morning when they would go to church and have the Sunday meal, until early Sunday evening was the time when everyone was encouraged to sing and swing and get merry like Christmas so one would have some fuel with which to live the rest of the week.
Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Diiie refers to my belief that we as individuals in a species are still so innocent that we think we could ask our murderer just before he puts the final wrench upon the throat, “Would you please give me a cool drink of water?” and he would do so. That’s innocence. It’s lovely.
The tune of Oh, Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well originally comes from a slave holler, and the words from a nineteenth-century spiritual:
Oh, pray my wings are gonna fit me well.
I’m a lay down this heavy load.
I tried them on at the gates of hell.
I’m a lay down this heavy load.
I planned to put all the things bothering me–my heavy load–in that book, and let them pass.
The title poem of And Still I Rise refers to the indomitable spirit of black people. Here’s a bit of it:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Claudia Tate: Can black women writers help clarify or help to resolve the black sexist debate that was rekindled by Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf and Michele Wallace’s Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman?
Maya Angelou: Neither Miss Shange nor Miss Wallace started the dialogue, so I wouldn’t suggest any black woman is going to stop it. If anything could have clarified the dialogue, Toni Morrison’s The Song of Solomon should have been the work to do that. I don’t know if that is a chore or a goal black women writers should assume. If someone feels so inclined, then she should go on and do it.
Everything good tends to clarify. By good I mean well written and well researched. There is nothing so strong as an idea whose time has come.
The writer–male or female–who is meant to clarify this issue will do so. I, myself, have no encouragement in that direction. There’s a lot that hasn’t been said. It may be necessary to hear the male view of For Colored Girls in a book or spoken upon the stage. It may be necessary, and I know it will be very painful.
Claudia Tate: What writers have influenced your work?
Maya Angelou: There were two men who probably formed my writing ambition more than any others. They were Paul Lawrence Dunbar and William Shakespeare. I love them. I love the rhythm and sweetness of Dunbar’s dialect verse. I love “Candle Lighting Time” and “Little Brown Baby.” I also love James Weldon Johnson’s “Creation.”
I am also impressed by living writers. I’m impressed with James Baldwin.
I continue to see not only his craftsmanship but his courage. That means a lot to me. Courage may be the most important of all the virtues because without it one cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. I’m impressed by Toni Morrison a great deal. I long for her new works. I’m impressed by the growth of Rosa Guy. I’m impressed by Ann Petry. I’m impressed by the work of Joan Didion. Her first collection, Slouching Toward Jerusalem, contains short pieces, which are absolutely stunning. I would walk fifty blocks in high heels to buy the works of any of these writers. I’m a country girl, so that means a lot.
Claudia Tate: Have any of your works been misunderstood?
Maya Angelou: A number of people have asked me why I wrote about the rape in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. They wanted to know why I had to tell that rape happens in the black community. I wanted people to see that the man was not totally an ogre. The hard thing about writing or directing or producing is to make sure one doesn’t make the negative person totally negative.
I try to tell the truth and preserve it in all artistic forms.
June Millicent Jordan (1936–2002) called herself a “dissident American poet,” and she counted among her forebears powerful voices ranging from Walt Whitman to Phyllis Wheatley. She began writing verse at the age of seven; her papers at the Harvard University Schlesinger Library contain stunning material about the girlhood that prefaced her remarkable career as creator and critic, educator, and activist.
In celebration of the 15th anniversary of the arrival of the Papers of June Jordan at the Harvard University Schlesinger and the 75th anniversary of the library’s founding, this panel discussion features scholars, poets, and activists exploring the many and ongoing facets of Jordan’s work.
Imani Perry (29:51), Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies, Princeton University
Mariame Kaba (47:08), founder and director, Project NIA
Joshua Bennett, director, June Jordan Fellowship Program, Center for Justice at Columbia University; 2016-2019 junior fellow, Society of Fellows, Harvard University
Jane Kamensky, Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director, Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute, and professor of history, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences
Kenvi Phillips (7:06), curator for race and ethnicity, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University
Alexander, the Wun Tsun Tam Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University is an accomplished poet, essayist, playwright and scholar. She is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, a founding member of Cave Canem, and former Chair of the African American Studies Department at Yale University.
In 2009, she became only the fourth poet to read her poetry at an American presidential inauguration.
“In the new beginning was The Word. And The Word was with Mother and Father. And The Word was absence…”
Born in Haiti during the brutal Duvalier dictatorship, Edwidge Danticat – whose parents moved to the United States when she was a child, leaving her in the care of relatives – discovered The Word at the foot of family storytellers and in the books of French language writers. As a child, she watched that mixed literary heritage upset as well as comfort her neighbors and countrymen. The staging of an Albert Camus play following a political murder was one of its most striking examples.
Inspired by Camus’ landmark essay “Create Dangerously” and his definition of art as “a revolt against everything fleeting and unfinished in the world,” Danticat’s lecture will focus on her experiences, and the experiences of other immigrant artists, living and working – culturally, linguistically and politically – between several sometimes violent and unfriendly worlds.
Sponsored jointly by the Department of African American Studies and Princeton University Press, the Toni Morrison Lectures spotlight the new and exciting work of scholars and writers who have risen to positions of prominence both in academe and in the broader world of letters.
The lectures are published in book form by Princeton University Press and celebrate the expansive literary imagination, intellectual adventurousness and political insightfulness that characterize the writing of Toni Morrison.
The A/P/A Institute at NYU participated in The Literary Mews NYU, part of the PEN World Voices Festival, for the third year in a row. Part-literary festival, part-street fair on the Washington Mews, the all-day 2015 Literary Mews presented readings and performances from the African Diaspora.
A/P/A Institute’s reading featured writers Ifeona Fulani (Ten Days in Jamaica) and Kerry Young (Pao and Gloria). Moderated by Rishi Nath (York College).
I wish to make it clear from the outset, however, that I do not have a mandate to speak for anyone. There are many intelligent blacks working in the American theatre who speak in loud and articulate voices. It would be the greatest of presumptions to say I speak for them. I speak only myself and those who may think as I do.
In one guise, the ground I stand on has been pioneered by the Greek dramatists—by Euripides, Aeschylus and Sophocles—by William Shakespeare, by Shaw and Ibsen, and by the American dramatists Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. In another guise, the ground that I stand on has been pioneered by my grandfather, by Nat Turner, by Denmark Vesey, by Martin Delaney, Marcus Garvey and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. That is the ground of the affirmation of the value of one being, an affirmation of his worth in the face of society’s urgent and sometimes profound denial. It was this ground as a young man coming into manhood searching for something to which dedicate my life that I discovered the Black Power movement of the ’60s. I felt it a duty and an honor to participate in that historic moment, as the people who had arrived in America chained and malnourished in the hold of a 350-foot Portuguese, Dutch or English sailing ship, were now seeking ways to alter their relationship to the society in which they lived—and, perhaps more important, searching for ways to alter the shared expectations of themselves as a community of people.
The Black Power movement of the ’60s: I find it curious but no small accident that I seldom hear those words “Black Power” spoken, and when mention is made of that part of black history in America, whether in the press or in conversation, reference is made to the Civil Rights Movement as though the Black Power movement—an important social movement by America’s ex-slaves—had in fact never happened. But the Black Power movement of the ’60s was a reality; it was the kiln in which I was fired, and has much to do with the person I am today and the ideas and attitudes that I carry as part of my consciousness.
I mention this because it is difficult to disassociate my concerns with theatre from the concerns of my life as a black man, and it is difficult to disassociate one part of my life from another. I have strived to live it all seamless … art and life together, inseparable and indistinguishable. The ideas I discovered and embraced in my youth when my idealism was full blown I have not abandoned in middle age when idealism is something less the blooming, but wisdom is starting to bud.
I am what is known, at least among the followers and supporters of the ideas of Marcus Garvey, as a “race man.” That is simply that I believe that race matters—that is the largest, most identifiable and the most important part of our personality. It is the largest category of identification because it is the one that most influences your perception of yourself, and it is the one to which others in the world of men most respond. Race is also an important part of the American landscape, as America is made up of an amalgamation of races from all parts of the globe. Race is also the product of a shared gene pool that allows for group identification, and it is an organizing principle around which cultures are formed. When I say culture I am speaking about the behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions and all other products of human work and thought as expressed in a particular community of people.
There are some people who will say that black Americans do not have a culture—that cultures are reserved for other people, most notably Europeans of various ethnic groupings, and that black Americans made up a sub-group of American culture that is derived from the European origins of its majority population. But black Americans are Africans, and there are many histories and many cultures on the African continent.
Those who would deny black Americans their culture would also deny them their history and the inherent values that are a part of all human life.
Growing up in my mother’s house at 1727 Bedford Ave. in Pittsburgh, Pa., I learned the language, the eating habits, the religious beliefs, the gestures, the notions of common sense, attitudes towards sex, concepts of beauty and justice, and the response to pleasure and pain, that my mother had learned from her mother, and which could trace back to the first African who set foot on the continent. It is this culture that stands solidly on these shores today as a testament to the resiliency of the African-American spirit.
The term black or African-American not only denotes race, it denotes condition, and carries with it the vestige of slavery and the social segregation and abuse of opportunity so vivid in our memory. That this abuse of opportunity and truncation of possibility is continuing and is so pervasive in our society in 1996 says much about who we are and much about the work that is necessary to alter our perceptions of each other and to effect meaningful prosperity for all.
The problematic nature of the relationship between white and black for too long led us astray the fulfillment of our possibilities as a society. We stare at each other across a divide of economics and privilege that has become an encumbrance on black Americans’ ability to prosper and on the collective will and spirit of our national purpose.
In terms of economics and privilege, one significant fact affects us all in the American theatre: Of the 66 LORT theatre, there is only one that can be considered black. From this it could be falsely assumed that there aren’t sufficient numbers of blacks working in the American theatre to sustain and support more theatres.
If you do not know, I will tell you that black theatre in America is alive … it is vibrant … it is vital … it just isn’t funded. Black theatre doesn’t share in the economics that would allow it to support its artists and supply them with meaningful avenues to develop their talent and broadcast and disseminate ideas crucial to its growth. The economics are reserved as privilege to the overwhelming abundance of institutions that preserve, promote and perpetuate white culture.
That is not a complaint. That is an advertisement. Since the funding sources, both public and private, do not publicly carry avowed missions of exclusion and segregated support, this is obviously either a glaring case of oversight, or we the proponents of black theatre have not made our presence or needs known. I hope here tonight to correct that.
I do not have the time in this short talk to reiterate the long and distinguished history of black theatre—often accomplished amid adverse and hostile conditions—but I would like to take the time to mark a few high points.
There are and have always been two distinct and parallel traditions in black art: that is, art that is conceived and design to entertain white society, and art that feeds the spirit and celebrates the life of black American by designing its strategies for survival and prosperity.
An important part of black theatre that is often ignored but is seminal to its tradition is its origins on the slave plantations of the South. Summoned to the “big house” to entertain the slave owner and his guests, the slave that reached its pinnacle for whites consisted of whatever the slave imagined or knew that his master wanted to see and hear. This tradition has its present life counterpart in the crossover artists that slant their material for white consumption.
This second tradition occurred when the African in the confines of the slave quarters sought to invest his spirit with the strength of his ancestors by conceiving in his art, in his song and dance, a world in which he was the spiritual center and his existence was a manifest act of the creator from whom life flowed. He then could create art that was functional and furnished him with a spiritual temperament necessary for his survival as property and the dehumanizing status that was attendant to that.
I stand myself and my art squarely on the self-defining ground of the slave quarters, and find the ground to be hallowed and made fertile by the blood and bones of the men and woman who can be described as warriors on the cultural battlefield that affirmed their self-worth. As there is no idea that cannot be contained by black life, these men and women found themselves to be sufficient and secure in their art and their instruction.
It was this high ground of self-definition that the black playwrights of the ’60s marked out for themselves. Ron Milner, Ed Bullins, Philip Hayes Dean, Richard Wesley, Lonne Elder III, Sonia Sanchez, Barbara Ann Teer and Amiri Baraka were among those playwrights who were particularly vocal and where remain indebted to them for their brave and courageous forays into an area that is marked with land mines and the shadows of snipers—those who would reserve the territory of arts and letters and the American theatre as their own special province and point blacks toward the ball fields and the bandstands.
That black theatre today comes under such assaults should surprise no one, as we are on the verge of reclaiming and reexamining the purpose and pillars of our art and laying out new directions for its expansion. As such we make a target for cultural imperialists who seek to empower and propagate their ideas about the world as the only valid ideas, and see blacks as woefully deficient not only in arts and letters but in the abundant gifts of humanity.
In the 19th century, the lack of education, the lack of contact with different cultures, the expensive and slow methods of travel and communication fostered such ideas, and the breeding ground of ignorance and racial intolerance promoted them.
The King’s English and the lexicon of a people given to such ignorance and intolerance did not do much to dispel such obvious misconceptions, but provided them with a home. I cite Webster’s Third New International Dictionary:
“BLACK: outrageously wicked, dishonorable, connected with the devil, menacing, sullen, hostile, unqualified, illicit, illegal, violators of public regulations, affected by some undesirable condition, etc.
“WHITE: free from blemish, moral stain or impurity; outstandingly righteous, innocent, not marked by malignant influence, notably, auspicious, fortunate, decent, a sterling man.”
Such is the linguistic environment that informs the distance that separates blacks and whites in America and which the cultural imperialist, who cannot imagine a life existing and flourishing outside his benevolent control, embraces.
Robert Brustein, writing in an article/review titled “Unity from Diversity [The New Republic, July 19–26, ’93] is apparently disturbed that “there is a tremendous outpouring of work by minority artists,” which he attributes to cultural diversity. He writes that the practice of extending invitations to a national banquet from which a lot of hungry people have long been excluded is a practice that can lead to confused standards. He goes on to establish a presumption of inferiority of the work of minority artists. “Funding agencies have started substituting sociological criteria for aesthetic criteria in their grant procedures, indicating that ‘elitist’ notions like quality and excellence are no longer functional.” He goes on to say, “It’s disarming in all senses of the word to say that we don’t share common experiences that are measurable by common standards. But the growing number of truly talented artists with more universal interests suggests that we may soon be in a position to return to a single value system.”
Brustein’s surprisingly sophomoric assumption that this tremendous outpouring of work by minority artists have started substituting sociological for aesthetic criteria, leaving aside notions like quality and excellence, shows him to be a victim of 19th-century thinking and the linguistic environment that posits blacks as unqualified. Quite possibly this tremendous outpouring of works by minority artists may lead to a raising of standards and a raising of the levels of excellence, but Mr. Brustein cannot allow that possibility.
To suggest that funding agencies are rewarding inferior work by pursuing sociological criteria only serve to call into question the tremendous outpouring of plays by white playwrights who benefit from funding given to the 66 LORT theatres.
Are those theatres funded on sociological or aesthetic criteria? Do we have 66 excellent theatres? Or do those theatres benefit from the sociological advantage that they are run by whites and cater to largely white audiences?
The truth is that often where there are aesthetic criteria of excellence, there are also sociological criteria that have traditionally excluded blacks. I say raise the standards and remove the sociological consideration of race as privilege and we will meet you at the crossroads, in equal numbers, prepared to do the work of extending and developing the common ground of the American theatre.
We are capable of work of the highest order; we can answer to the high standards of world-class art. Anyone who doubts our capabilities at this late stage is being intellectually dishonest.
We can meet on the common ground of theatre as a field of work and endeavor. But we cannot meet on the common ground of experience.
Where is the common ground n the horrifics of lynching? Where is the common ground in the main of a policeman’s bullet? Where is the common ground in the hull or the deck of a slave ship with its refreshments of air and expanse?
We will not be denied our history.
We have voice and we have temper. We are too far along this road from the loss of our political will, we are too far along the road of reassembling ourselves, too far along the road to regaining spiritual health to allow such transgression of our history to go unchallenged.
The commonalties we share are the commonalities of culture. We decorate our houses. That is something we do in common. We do it differently because we value different things. We have different manners and different values of social intercourse. We have different ideas of what a party is.
There are some commonalities to our different ideas. We both offer food and drink to our guests, but because we have different culinary values, different culinary histories, we offer different food and drink. In our culinary history, we have learned to make do with the feet and ears and tails and intestines of the pig rather than the loin and the ham and the bacon. Because of our different histories with the same animal, we have different culinary ideas. But we share a common experience with the pig as opposed to say Muslims and Jews, who do not share that experience.
We can meet on the common ground of the American theatre.
We cannot share a single value system if that value system consists of the values of white Americans based on their European ancestors. We reject that as Cultural Imperialism. We need a value system that includes our contributions as Africans in America. Our agendas are a valid as yours. We may disagree, we may forever be on opposite sides of aesthetics, but we can only share a value system that is inclusive of all Americans and recognizes their unique and valuable contributions.
The ground together. We must develop the ground together. We reject the idea of equality among equals, but we say rather the equality of all men.
The common values of the American theatre that we can share are plot … dialogue … characterization … design. How we both make use of them will be determined by who we are—what ground we are standing on and what our cultural values are.
Theatre is part of art history in terms of its craft and dramaturgy, but it is part of social history in terms of how it is financed and governed. By making money available to theatres willing to support colorblind casting, the financiers and governors have signaled not only their unwillingness to support black theatre but their willingness to fund dangerous and divisive assaults against it. Colorblind casting is an aberrant idea that has never had any validity other than as a tool of the Cultural Imperialists who view American culture, rooted in the icons of European culture, as beyond reproach in its perfection. It is inconceivable to them that life could be lived and enriched without knowing Shakespeare or Mozart. Their gods, their manners, their being, are the only true and correct representations of humankind. They refuse to recognize black conduct and manners as part of a system that is fueled by its own philosophy, mythology, history, creative motif, social organization and ethos. The ideas that blacks have their own way of responding to the world, their own values, style, linguistics, religion and aesthetics, is unacceptable to them.
For a black actor to stand on the stage as part of a social milieu that has denied him his gods, his culture, his humanity, his mores, his ideas of himself and the world he lives in, is to be in league with a thousand nay-sayers who wish to corrupt the vigor and spirit of his heart.
To cast us in the role of mimics is to deny us our own competence.
Our manners, our style, our approach to language, our gestures, and our bodies are not for rent. The history of our bodies—the maimings … the lashings … the lynchings …the body that is capable of inspiring profound rage and pungent cruelty—is not for rent.
To mount an all-black production of a Death of a Salesman or any other play conceived for white actors as an investigation of the human condition through the specifics of white culture is to deny us our humanity our own history, and the need to make our own investigations from the culture ground on which we stand as black Americans. It is an assault on our presence, our difficult but honorable history in America; it is an insult to our intelligence, our playwrights, and our many and varied contributions to the society and the world at large.
The idea of colorblind casting is the same idea of assimilation that black Americans have been rejecting for the past 380 years. For the record, we reject it again. We reject any attempt to blot us out, to reinvent history and ignore our presence or to maim our spiritual product. We must not continue to meet on t his path. We will not deny our history, and we will not allow it to be made to be of little consequence, to be ignored or misinterpreted.
In an effort to spare us the burden of being “affected by an undesirable condition” and as a gesture of benevolence, many whites (like the proponents of colorblind casting) say, “Oh, I don’t see color.” We want you to see us. We are black and beautiful. We are not patrons of the linguistic environment that had us as “unqualified, and violators of public regulations.” We are not a menace to society. We are not ashamed. We have an honorable history in the world of men. We come from a long line of honorable people with complex codes of ethnics and social discourse, people who devised myths and systems of cosmology and systems of economics. We are not ashamed, and do not need you to be ashamed for us. Nor do we need the recognition of our blackness to be couched in abstract phases like “artist of color.” Who are you talking about? A Japanese artist? An Eskimo? A Filipino? A Mexican? A Cambodian? A Nigerian? An African American? Are we to suppose that if you put a white person on one side of the scale and the rest of humanity lumped together as nondescript “people of color” on the other side, that it would balance out? That whites carry that much spiritual weight? We reject that. We are unique, and we are specific.
We do not need colorblind casting; we need some theatres to develop our playwrights. We need those misguided financial resources to be put to better use. We cannot develop our playwrights with the meager resources at our disposal. Why is it difficult to imagine 9 black theatres but not 66 white ones? Without theatres we cannot develop our talents. If we cannot develop our talents, then everyone suffers: our writers; the theatre; the audience. Actors are deprived of the jobs in support of the art—the company manager, the press concessionaires, the people that work in wardrobe, the box-office staff, the ushers and the janitors. We need some theatres. We cannot continue like this. We have only one life to develop our talent, to fulfill our potential as artists. One life, and it is short, and the lack of the means to develop our talent is an encumbrance on that life.
We did not sit on the sidelines while the immigrants of Europe, through hard work, skill, cunning, guile and opportunity, built America into an industrial giant of the 20th century. It was our labor that provided the capital. It was our labor in the shipyards and the stockyards and the coal mines and the steel mills. Our labor built the roads and the railroads. And when America was challenged, we strode on the battlefield, our boots strapped on and our blood left to soak into the soil of places whose names we could not pronounce, against an enemy whose only crime was ideology. We left our blood in France and Korea and the Philippines and Vietnam, and our only reward has been the deprivation of possibility and the denial of our moral personality.
It cannot continue. The ground together: The American ground on which I stand and which my ancestors purchased with their perseverance, with their survival, with their manners and with their faith.
It cannot continue, as other assaults upon our presence and our history cannot continue: When the New York Times publishes an article on pop singer Michael Bolton and lists as his influences four white singers, then as an afterthought tosses in the phase “and the great black rhythm and blues singers, “it cannot be anything but purposeful with intent to maim. These great black rhythm and blues singers are reduced to an afterthought on the edge of oblivion—one stroke of the editor’s pen and the history of American music is revised, and Otis Redding, Jerry Butler and Rufus Thomas are consigned to the dustbin of history while Joe Cocker, Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart are elevated to the status of the originators and creators of a vital art that is a product of our spiritual travails; the history of music becomes a fabrication, a blatant forgery which under the hallowed auspices of the New York Times is presented as the genuine article.
We cannot accept these assaults. We must defend and protect our spiritual fruits. To ignore these assaults would be to be derelict our duties. We cannot accept them. Our political capital will not permit them.
So much of what makes this country rich in art and all manners of spiritual life is the contributions that we as African Americans have made. We cannot allow others to have authority over our cultural and spiritual products. We reject, without reservation, any attempts by anyone to rewrite our history so to deny us the rewards of our spiritual labors, and to become the culture custodians of our art, our literature and our lives. To give expression to the spirit that has been shaped and fashioned by our history is of necessity to give voice and vent to the history itself.
It must remain for us a history of triumph.
The time has come for black playwrights to confer with one another, to come together to meet each other face to face, to address question of aesthetics and ways to defend ourselves from the nay-sayers who would trumpet our talents as insufficient to warrant the same manner of investigation and exploration as the majority. We need to develop guidelines for the protection of our cultural property, our contributions and the influence they accrue. It is time we took responsibility for our talents in our own hands. We cannot depend on others. We cannot depend on the directors, the managers or the actors to do the work we should be doing for ourselves. It is our lives and the pursuit of our fulfillment that are being encumbered by false ideas and perceptions.
It is time to embrace the political dictates of our history and answer the challenge to our duties. I further think we should confer in a city in our ancestral homeland in the southern part of the United States in 1998, so that we may enter the millennium united and prepared for a long future of prosperity.
From the hull of a ship to self-determining, self-respecting people. That is the journey we are making.
We are robust in spirit, we are bright with laughter, and we are bold in imagination. Our blood is soaked into the soil and our bones lie scattered the whole way across the Atlantic Ocean, as Hansel’s crumbs, to mark the way back home.
We are no longer in the House of Bondage, and soon we will no longer be victims of the counting houses who hold from us ways to develop and support our talents and our expressions of life and its varied meanings. Assaults upon the body politic that demean and ridicule and depress the value and worth of our existence that seek to render it immobile and to extinguish the flame of freedom lit eons ago by our ancestors upon another continent—these must be met with a fierce and uncompromising defense.
If you are willing to accept it, it is your duty to affirm and urge that defense, that respect and that determination.
I must mention here, with all due respect to W. E. B. DuBois, that the concept of a “talented tenth” creates an artificial superiority. It is a fallacy and a dangerous idea that only serves to divide us further. I am not willing to throw away the sons and daughters of those people who gave more than lip service to the will to live and made it a duty to prosper in spirit, if not in provision. All God’s children got talent. It is a dangerous idea to set one part of the populace above and aside from the other. We do a grave disservice to ourselves not to seek out and embrace and enable all of our human resources as a people. All blacks in America, with very few exceptions—no matter what our status, no matter the size of our bank accounts, no matter how many and what kind of academic degrees we can place beside our names, no matter the furnishings and square footage of our homes, the length of our closets and the quality of the wool and cotton that hangs there—we all in America originated from the same place: the slave plantations of the South. We all share a common past, and despite how some us might think and how it might look, we all share a common present and will share a common future.
We can make a difference. Artists, playwrights, actors—we can be the spearhead of a movement to reignite and reunite our people’s positive energy for a political and social change that is reflective of our spiritual truths rather than economic fallacies. Our talents, our truth, our belief in ourselves in all our hands. What we make of it will emerge as a baptismal spray that names and defines. What we do now becomes history by which our grandchildren will judge us.
We are not off on a tangent. The foundation of the American theatre is the foundation of European theatre that begins with the great Greek dramatists; it is based on the proscenium stage and the poetics of Aristotle. This is the theatre that we have chosen to work in. We embrace the values of that theatre but reserve the right to amend, to explore, to add our African consciousness and our African aesthetic to the art we produce.
To pursue our cultural expression does not separate us. We are not separatists as Mr. Brustein asserts. We are American trying to fulfill our talents. We are not the servants at the party. We are not apprentices in the kitchens. We are not the stableboys to the King’s huntsmen. We are Africans. We are Americans. The irreversible sweep of history has decreed that. We are artists who seek to develop our talents and give expression to our personalities. We bring advantage to the common ground that is the American theatre.
All theatres depend on an audience for its dialogue. To the American theatre, subscription audiences are its life blood. But the subscription audiences are its life blood. But the subscription audience holds the seats of our theatres hostage to the mediocrity of its tastes, and serves to impede the further development of an audience for the work that we do. While intentional or not, it serves to keep blacks out of the theatre where they suffer no illusion of welcome anyway. A subscription thus becomes not a support system but makes the patrons members of a club to which the theatre serves as a clubhouse. It is an irony that the people who can most afford a full-price ticket get discounts for subscribing, while the single-ticket buyer who cannot afford a subscription is charged the additional burden of support to offset the subscription-buyer’s discount. It is a system that is in need of overhaul to provide not only a more equitable access to tickets but access to influence as well.
I look for and challenge students of arts management to be bold in their exploration of new systems of funding theatres, including profit-making institutions and ventures, and I challenge black artists and audiences to scale the walls erected by theatre subscriptions to gain access to this vital area of spiritual enlightenment and enrichment that is the theatre.
All theatergoers have opinions about the work they witness. Critics have an informed opinion. Sometimes it may be necessary for them to gather more information to become more informed. As playwrights grow and develop, as the theatre changes, the critic has an important responsibility to guide and encourage that growth. However, in the discharge of their duties, it may be necessary for them to also grow and develop. A stagnant body of critics, operating from the critical criteria of 40 years ago, makes for a stagnant theatre without the fresh and abiding influence of contemporary ideas. It is the critics who should be in the forefront of developing new tools for analysis necessary to understand new influences.
The critic who can recognize a German neo-romantic influence should also be able to recognize an American influence from blues or black church rituals, or any other contemporary American influence.
The true critic does not sit in judgment. Rather he seeks to inform his reader, instead of adopting a posture of self-conscious importance in which he sees himself a judge and final arbiter of a work’s importance or value.
We stand on the verge of an explosion of playwriting talent that will challenge our critics. As American playwrights absorb the influence of television and use new avenues of approach to the practice of their craft, they will prove to be wildly inventive and imaginative in creating dramas that will guide and influence contemporary life for years to come.
Theatre can do that. It can disseminate ideas, it can educate even the miseducated, because it is art—and all art reaches across that divide that makes order out of chaos, and embraces the truth that overwhelms with its presence, and connects man to something larger than himself and his imagination.
Theatre asserts that all human life is universal. Love, Honor, Duty, Betrayal belong and pertain to every culture or race. The way they are acted on the playing field may be different, but betrayal whether you are a South Sea Islander, a Mississippi farmer or an English baron. All of human life is universal, and it is theatre that illuminates and confers upon the universal the ability to speak for all men.
The ground together: We have to do it together. We cannot permit our lives waste away, our talents unchallenged. We cannot permit a failure to our duty. We are brave and we are boisterous, our mettle is proven, and we are dedicated.
The ground together: the ground of the American theatre on which I am proud to stand … the ground which our artistic ancestors purchase with their endeavors … with their pursuit of the American spirit and its ideals.
I believe in the American theatre. I believe in its power to inform about the human condition, its power to heal, its power to hold the mirror as ’twere up to nature, its power to uncover the truths we wrestle from uncertain and sometimes unyielding realities. All of art is a search for ways of being, of living life more fully. We who are capable of those noble pursuits should challenge the melancholy and barbaric, to bring the light of angelic grace, peace, prosperity and the unencumbered pursuit of happiness to the ground on which we all stand.