My Wobbly Bicycle, 148

Posted by on Feb 7, 2018 | 4 comments

My last post was idiotic.  Black poems, white poems? Guess I was just fishing for an angle and took that easy one.  Categorization, of course, is the most human of endeavors. But a poem is a poem. It might come from an Afghan, a New Zealander, a Cuban, but we generally call it a poem if the writer does. There are family traits, a DNA of its heritage, but they’re poems, good or bad.


I have no intention of evaluating Nikki Giovanni’s poetry. Not here, anyway. I’m more interested in the minds of black writers, in general. I admit, I have had the fuzziest idea. Forgive me, please, black writers.  I’ve had so little occasion to wrestle/ ponder this issue in any depth. Nothing has driven me to it, and I suppose we never go anywhere we aren’t driven to, in one way or another.


downloadAs an undergraduate, I read Richard Wright’s Native Son. I wasn’t old enough to hear it properly. Bigger Thomas was not at all real to me.

download-1I was recently reading Nikki’s conversation with James Baldwin. She brought up his novel, Giovanni’s Room. Okay, I thought, I’ll read that. No, first I’ll read Notes of a Native Son (It’s one of those books, I’d heard of so often I thought I must have read it. Jerry suggested I start there.) Reading Baldwin’s essays is to watch his gorgeous mind in motion.


Maybe my soul—okay, I’ll use that word—is now sufficiently developed to be able to hear what I was deaf to, before. Maybe I’ve had enough of my own anguishes. Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair, either.


It isn’t a crystal stair for anyone, and if you say it is, you’re lying. It’s also grand and wonderful, but it’s no crystal stair. And there is no one I have ever read who takes me into the dark recesses, the dim sunlight, with love and respect for the whole shebang, than James Baldwin.


I’ve now read Giovanni’s Room, Go Tell it On the Mountain, and Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone. Several general comments:


download-2I was stunned by the lyric quality of the character John’s conversion in Go Tell it On the Mountain—his anguish, his process of giving up, his wrestling, and the uneasy sense, in both writer and reader, of the shall we say darker side of what this conversion means.


Which leads me into my main thought, here: The residuals of having grown up in an evangelical church, and particularly a black church, are to be cherished. Often to be wrestled free from, also. But cherished, if you’re a writer. Maybe even if you’re not.


imagesListen to Baldwin, describing John’s initial conversion. It’s fraught with his desire to please his father (who is actually his step-father, unbenowst to him), who shows him no love. It’s fraught with the power of the church to demand conversion. He’s lying on the floor before the altar:


“. . . as though God’s toe had touched him lightly. And the dust made him cough and retch; in his turning the center of the whole world shifted, making of space a sheer void and a mockery of order, and balance, and time. Nothing remained: all was swallowed up in chaos. And: Is this it? John’s terrified soul inquired—What is it?—to no purpose, receiving no answer. . . . And still he was going down, farther and farther from the joy, the singing, and the light above him.

        He tried, but in such despair!—the utter darkness does not present any point of departure contains no beginning and no end. . .And the Holy Ghost was speaking—seeming to say, as John spelled out the so abruptly present and gigantic legend adorning the cross: Jesus Saves. He had stared at this, an awful bitterness in his heart, wanting to curse—and the Spirit spoke, and spoke in him. . . .in his heart there was a sudden yearning tenderness. . .”


This isn’t an adequate example! Taken as a whole, the language is pregnant with the beyond, the absolute. It carries the weight of the Marriage of Heaven and Hell within it. There is the incantatory rush, the belief that inside the language lives Truth, if it could be cracked open.


Incantation is at the core of all poetry, but markedly of black poetry, poetry steeped in the gospel. If there’s a DNA, that’s it.


images-1Here is Nikki Giovanni on the role of women in this incantatory quality: “If you’re in trouble, you don’t whistle a happy tune and hold your head erect. You hummmm. You hum a basic gospel tune. Can you imagine what a slave-ship must have sounded like to the women. All the slave-ship stories we’ve heard are from men. All the men heard was the agony of the men. That’s valid. But just imagine what a slave ship must have sounded like to a woman. The humming must have been deafening. It had to be there. The hum, the gospel, the call-and-response came over here because it’s here. The men didn’t bring it over. I’m not knocking the men. They brought the drum, for sure.  . .  they were not field men, they were hunters. Hunters don’t make noise. What we’re hearing in the music is the women. We women were the ones in the field in Africa. We were communal even then, and as we got into bigger fields, we would call to one another. The hum, the holler, the leader-call are women things.  . . . .so what you’re hearing in our music is nothing but the sound of a woman calling another woman.”










  1. Fleda, my dear woman. You could TRY to be idiotic…but I am sure it’ll be a doomed effort. The issues you touch in here and just before do concern me greatly, and all the more so in that several beloved African-Americans, a son in law and our youngest daughter’s partner, are in our clan now– for good, please God– and three of our six grand kids are mixed-race children. But does that make me some sort of moral expert, or less less confused about matters of race in America…or anywhere? Scarcely. My confusion, I daresay our COLLECTIVE confusion over so many social issues, racially charged ones being the especial wages of our nation’s past and present sins, reminds me of our confusion about…poetry. Indeed, I think that at its heart, the utter ambiguity of the most challenging and enduring poetry is a reflection of the world’s stubborn refusal to resolve itself into neat little categories.

    A related observation is this: that a poet utterly certain of what “must be done,” aesthetically or otherwise, is not much likely to engage us. In the more public sphere, certainties, say, about what makes America an ethical mare’s nest and how to remedy that are akin to their opposites –what made it “great” and what can make it be so again. ThEse sureties are real and present dangers. Regardless of one’s macro-politics, it seems to me a moral obligation to keep ambiguity alive. Don’t easily imagine, to stick with that theme, that past U.S. behavior is based on fine and enduring principles. There is a superb African proverb that seems to me a propos: “Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”But don’t do a good guys/bad guys thing too simplistically, either. We treated this continent’s indigenous people horridly; but read up a little bit on Comanche society and get back to me with your contemporary version of the noble savage myth. The older I get, the more frightened I am by ANY simple solution.

    • What an eloquent response. I am particularly struck by what you say about certainty, We can see all around us the effects of certainty, and of simple so-called solutions. As always, thanks, Syd.

  2. Fleda, please find time to read James Baldwin’s ANOTHER COUNTRY. It was not the best critically acclaimed of his works, but I first read it when very young and have re-read it several times, most recently last year. Baldwin manages to get inside all his characters — black, white, straight, gay, men, women, Americans, French –in a way that is nothing short of genius.

    • Okay. Will do. Thanks, Pamela.

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