IT IS INSUFFICIENT TO STATE the obvious of Donald Trump: that he is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact. With one immediate exception, Trump’s predecessors made their way to high office through the passive power of whiteness—that bloody heirloom which cannot ensure mastery of all events but can conjure a tailwind for most of them. Land theft and human plunder cleared the grounds for Trump’s forefathers and barred others from it. Once upon the field, these men became soldiers, statesmen, and scholars; held court in Paris; presided at Princeton; advanced into the Wilderness and then into the White House. Their individual triumphs made this exclusive party seem above America’s founding sins, and it was forgotten that the former was in fact bound to the latter, that all their victories had transpired on cleared grounds. No such elegant detachment can be attributed to Donald Trump—a president who, more than any other, has made the awful inheritance explicit.
Listen to the audio version of this article:His political career began in advocacy of birtherism, that modern recasting of the old American precept that black people are not fit to be citizens of the country they built. But long before birtherism, Trump had made his worldview clear. He fought to keep blacks out of his buildings, according to the U.S. government; called for the death penalty for the eventually exonerated Central Park Five; and railed against “lazy” black employees. “Black guys counting my money! I hate it,” Trump was once quoted as saying. “The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day.” After his cabal of conspiracy theorists forced Barack Obama to present his birth certificate, Trump demanded the president’s college grades (offering $5 million in exchange for them), insisting that Obama was not intelligent enough to have gone to an Ivy League school, and that his acclaimed memoir, Dreams From My Father, had been ghostwritten by a white man, Bill Ayers.It is often said that Trump has no real ideology, which is not true—his ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power. Trump inaugurated his campaign by casting himself as the defender of white maidenhood against Mexican “rapists,” only to be later alleged by multiple accusers, and by his own proud words, to be a sexual violator himself. White supremacy has always had a perverse sexual tint. Trump’s rise was shepherded by Steve Bannon, a man who mocks his white male critics as “cucks.” The word, derived from cuckold, is specifically meant to debase by fear and fantasy—the target is so weak that he would submit to the humiliation of having his white wife lie with black men. That the slur cuck casts white men as victims aligns with the dicta of whiteness, which seek to alchemize one’s profligate sins into virtue. So it was with Virginia slaveholders claiming that Britain sought to make slaves of them. So it was with marauding Klansmen organized against alleged rapes and other outrages. So it was with a candidate who called for a foreign power to hack his opponent’s email and who now, as president, is claiming to be the victim of “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history.”In Trump, white supremacists see one of their own. Only grudgingly did Trump denounce the Ku Klux Klan and David Duke, one of its former grand wizards—and after the clashes between white supremacists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, Duke in turn praised Trump’s contentious claim that “both sides” were responsible for the violence.
To Trump, whiteness is neither notional nor symbolic but is the very core of his power. In this, Trump is not singular. But whereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies. The repercussions are striking: Trump is the first president to have served in no public capacity before ascending to his perch. But more telling, Trump is also the first president to have publicly affirmed that his daughter is a “piece of ass.” The mind seizes trying to imagine a black man extolling the virtues of sexual assault on tape (“When you’re a star, they let you do it”), fending off multiple accusations of such assaults, immersed in multiple lawsuits for allegedly fraudulent business dealings, exhorting his followers to violence, and then strolling into the White House. But that is the point of white supremacy—to ensure that that which all others achieve with maximal effort, white people (particularly white men) achieve with minimal qualification. Barack Obama delivered to black people the hoary message that if they work twice as hard as white people, anything is possible. But Trump’s counter is persuasive: Work half as hard as black people, and even more is possible.
For Trump, it almost seems that the fact of Obama, the fact of a black president, insulted him personally. The insult intensified when Obama and Seth Meyers publicly humiliated him at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2011. But the bloody heirloom ensures the last laugh. Replacing Obama is not enough—Trump has made the negation of Obama’s legacy the foundation of his own. And this too is whiteness. “Race is an idea, not a fact,” the historian Nell Irvin Painter has written, and essential to the construct of a “white race” is the idea of not being a nigger. Before Barack Obama, niggers could be manufactured out of Sister Souljahs, Willie Hortons, and Dusky Sallys. But Donald Trump arrived in the wake of something more potent—an entire nigger presidency with nigger health care, nigger climate accords, and nigger justice reform, all of which could be targeted for destruction or redemption, thus reifying the idea of being white. Trump truly is something new—the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president. And so it will not suffice to say that Trump is a white man like all the others who rose to become president. He must be called by his rightful honorific—America’s first white president.
THE SCOPE OF TRUMP’S commitment to whiteness is matched only by the depth of popular disbelief in the power of whiteness. We are now being told that support for Trump’s “Muslim ban,” his scapegoating of immigrants, his defenses of police brutality are somehow the natural outgrowth of the cultural and economic gap between Lena Dunham’s America and Jeff Foxworthy’s. The collective verdict holds that the Democratic Party lost its way when it abandoned everyday economic issues like job creation for the softer fare of social justice. The indictment continues: To their neoliberal economics, Democrats and liberals have married a condescending elitist affect that sneers at blue-collar culture and mocks the white man as history’s greatest monster and prime-time television’s biggest doofus. In this rendition, Donald Trump is not the product of white supremacy so much as the product of a backlash against contempt for white working-class people.
“We so obviously despise them, we so obviously condescend to them,” the conservative social scientist Charles Murray, who co-wrote The Bell Curve, recently toldThe New Yorker, speaking of the white working class. “The only slur you can use at a dinner party and get away with is to call somebody a redneck—that won’t give you any problems in Manhattan.”
“The utter contempt with which privileged Eastern liberals such as myself discuss red-state, gun-country, working-class America as ridiculous and morons and rubes,” charged the celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, “is largely responsible for the upswell of rage and contempt and desire to pull down the temple that we’re seeing now.”
That black people, who have lived for centuries under such derision and condescension, have not yet been driven into the arms of Trump does not trouble these theoreticians. After all, in this analysis, Trump’s racism and the racism of his supporters are incidental to his rise. Indeed, the alleged glee with which liberals call out Trump’s bigotry is assigned even more power than the bigotry itself. Ostensibly assaulted by campus protests, battered by arguments about intersectionality, and oppressed by new bathroom rights, a blameless white working class did the only thing any reasonable polity might: elect an orcish reality-television star who insists on taking his intelligence briefings in picture-book form.
Asserting that Trump’s rise was primarily powered by cultural resentment and economic reversal has become de rigueur among white pundits and thought leaders. But evidence for this is, at best, mixed. In a study of preelection polling data, the Gallup researchers Jonathan Rothwell and Pablo Diego-Rosell found that “people living in areas with diminished economic opportunity” were “somewhat more likely to support Trump.” But the researchers also found that voters in their study who supported Trump generally had a higher mean household income ($81,898) than those who did not ($77,046). Those who approved of Trump were “less likely to be unemployed and less likely to be employed part-time” than those who did not. They also tended to be from areas that were very white: “The racial and ethnic isolation of whites at the zip code level is one of the strongest predictors of Trump support.”An analysis of exit polls conducted during the presidential primaries estimated the median household income of Trump supporters to be about $72,000. But even this lower number is almost double the median household income of African Americans, and $15,000 above the American median. Trump’s white support was not determined by income. According to Edison Research, Trump won whites making less than $50,000 by 20 points, whites making $50,000 to $99,999 by 28 points, and whites making $100,000 or more by 14 points. This shows that Trump assembled a broad white coalition that ran the gamut from Joe the Dishwasher to Joe the Plumber to Joe the Banker. So when white pundits cast the elevation of Trump as the handiwork of an inscrutable white working class, they are being too modest, declining to claim credit for their own economic class. Trump’s dominance among whites across class lines is of a piece with his larger dominance across nearly every white demographic. Trump won white women (+9) and white men (+31). He won white people with college degrees (+3) and white people without them (+37). He won whites ages 18–29 (+4), 30–44 (+17), 45–64 (+28), and 65 and older (+19). Trump won whites in midwestern Illinois (+11), whites in mid-Atlantic New Jersey (+12), and whites in the Sun Belt’s New Mexico (+5). In no state that Edison polled did Trump’s white support dip below 40 percent. Hillary Clinton’s did, in states as disparate as Florida, Utah, Indiana, and Kentucky. From the beer track to the wine track, from soccer moms to nascardads, Trump’s performance among whites was dominant. According to Mother Jones, based on preelection polling data, if you tallied the popular vote of only white America to derive 2016 electoral votes, Trump would have defeated Clinton 389 to 81, with the remaining 68 votes either a toss-up or unknown.Part of Trump’s dominance among whites resulted from his running as a Republican, the party that has long cultivated white voters. Trump’s share of the white vote was similar to Mitt Romney’s in 2012. But unlike Romney, Trump secured this support by running against his party’s leadership, against accepted campaign orthodoxy, and against all notions of decency. By his sixth month in office, embroiled in scandal after scandal, a Pew Research Center poll found Trump’s approval rating underwater with every single demographic group. Every demographic group, that is, except one: people who identified as white.
The focus on one subsector of Trump voters—the white working class—is puzzling, given the breadth of his white coalition. Indeed, there is a kind of theater at work in which Trump’s presidency is pawned off as a product of the white working class as opposed to a product of an entire whiteness that includes the very authors doing the pawning. The motive is clear: escapism. To accept that the bloody heirloom remains potent even now, some five decades after Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down on a Memphis balcony—even after a black president; indeed, strengthened by the fact of that black president—is to accept that racism remains, as it has since 1776, at the heart of this country’s political life. The idea of acceptance frustrates the left. The left would much rather have a discussion about class struggles, which might entice the white working masses, instead of about the racist struggles that those same masses have historically been the agents and beneficiaries of. Moreover, to accept that whiteness brought us Donald Trump is to accept whiteness as an existential danger to the country and the world. But if the broad and remarkable white support for Donald Trump can be reduced to the righteous anger of a noble class of smallville firefighters and evangelicals, mocked by Brooklyn hipsters and womanist professors into voting against their interests, then the threat of racism and whiteness, the threat of the heirloom, can be dismissed. Consciences can be eased; no deeper existential reckoning is required.
This transfiguration is not novel. It is a return to form. The tightly intertwined stories of the white working class and black Americans go back to the prehistory of the United States—and the use of one as a cudgel to silence the claims of the other goes back nearly as far. Like the black working class, the white working class originated in bondage—the former in the lifelong bondage of slavery, the latter in the temporary bondage of indenture. In the early 17th century, these two classes were remarkably, though not totally, free of racist enmity. But by the 18th century, the country’s master class had begun etching race into law while phasing out indentured servitude in favor of a more enduring labor solution. From these and other changes of law and economy, a bargain emerged: The descendants of indenture would enjoy the full benefits of whiteness, the most definitional benefit being that they would never sink to the level of the slave. But if the bargain protected white workers from slavery, it did not protect them from near-slave wages or backbreaking labor to attain them, and always there lurked a fear of having their benefits revoked. This early white working class “expressed soaring desires to be rid of the age-old inequalities of Europe and of any hint of slavery,” according to David R. Roediger, a professor of American studies at the University of Kansas. “They also expressed the rather more pedestrian goal of simply not being mistaken for slaves, or ‘negers’ or ‘negurs.’ ”
Roediger relates the experience, around 1807, of a British investor who made the mistake of asking a white maid in New England whether her “master” was home. The maid admonished the investor, not merely for implying that she had a “master” and thus was a “sarvant” but for his basic ignorance of American hierarchy. “None but negers are sarvants,” the maid is reported to have said. In law and economics and then in custom, a racist distinction not limited to the household emerged between the “help” (or the “freemen,” or the white workers) and the “servants” (the “negers,” the slaves). The former were virtuous and just, worthy of citizenship, progeny of Jefferson and, later, Jackson. The latter were servile and parasitic, dim-witted and lazy, the children of African savagery. But the dignity accorded to white labor was situational, dependent on the scorn heaped upon black labor—much as the honor accorded a “virtuous lady” was dependent on the derision directed at a “loose woman.” And like chivalrous gentlemen who claim to honor the lady while raping the “whore,” planters and their apologists could claim to honor white labor while driving the enslaved.And so George Fitzhugh, a prominent 19th-century Southern pro-slavery intellectual, could in a single stroke deplore the exploitation of free whites’ labor while defending the exploitation of enslaved blacks’ labor. Fitzhugh attacked white capitalists as “cannibals,” feeding off the labor of their fellow whites. The white workers were “ ‘slaves without masters;’ the little fish, who were food for all the larger.” Fitzhugh inveighed against a “professional man” who’d “amassed a fortune” by exploiting his fellow whites. But whereas Fitzhugh imagined white workers as devoured by capital, he imagined black workers as elevated by enslavement. The slaveholder “provided for them, with almost parental affection”—even when the loafing slave “feigned to be unfit for labor.” Fitzhugh proved too explicit—going so far as to argue that white laborers might be better off if enslaved. (“If white slavery be morally wrong,” he wrote, “the Bible cannot be true.”) Nevertheless, the argument that America’s original sin was not deep-seated white supremacy but rather the exploitation of white labor by white capitalists—“white slavery”—proved durable. Indeed, the panic of white slavery lives on in our politics today. Black workers suffer because it was and is our lot. But when white workers suffer, something in nature has gone awry. And so an opioid epidemic among mostly white people is greeted with calls for compassion and treatment, as all epidemics should be, while a crack epidemic among mostly black people is greeted with scorn and mandatory minimums. Sympathetic op‑ed columns and articles are devoted to the plight of working-class whites when their life expectancy plummets to levels that, for blacks, society has simply accepted as normal. White slavery is sin. Nigger slavery is natural. This dynamic serves a very real purpose: the consistent awarding of grievance and moral high ground to that class of workers which, by the bonds of whiteness, stands closest to America’s aristocratic class.This is by design. Speaking in 1848, Senator John C. Calhoun saw slavery as the explicit foundation for a democratic union among whites, working and not:
With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.
On the eve of secession, Jefferson Davis, the eventual president of the Confederacy, pushed the idea further, arguing that such equality between the white working class and white oligarchs could not exist at all without black slavery:
I say that the lower race of human beings that constitute the substratum of what is termed the slave population of the South, elevates every white man in our community … It is the presence of a lower caste, those lower by their mental and physical organization, controlled by the higher intellect of the white man, that gives this superiority to the white laborer. Menial services are not there performed by the white man. We have none of our brethren sunk to the degradation of being menials. That belongs to the lower race—the descendants of Ham.
Southern intellectuals found a shade of agreement with Northern white reformers who, while not agreeing on slavery, agreed on the nature of the most tragic victim of emerging capitalism. “I was formerly like yourself, sir, a very warm advocate of the abolition of slavery,” the labor reformer George Henry Evans argued in a letter to the abolitionist Gerrit Smith. “This was before I saw that there was white slavery.” Evans was a putative ally of Smith and his fellow abolitionists. But still he asserted that “the landless white” was worse off than the enslaved black, who at least enjoyed “surety of support in sickness and old age.”
Invokers of “white slavery” held that there was nothing unique in the enslavement of blacks when measured against the enslavement of all workers. What evil there was in enslavement resulted from its status as a subsidiary of the broader exploitation better seen among the country’s noble laboring whites. Once the larger problem of white exploitation was solved, the dependent problem of black exploitation could be confronted or perhaps would fade away. Abolitionists focused on slavery were dismissed as “substitutionists” who wished to trade one form of slavery for another. “If I am less troubled concerning the Slavery prevalent in Charleston or New-Orleans,” wrote the reformer Horace Greeley, “it is because I see so much Slavery in New-York, which appears to claim my first efforts.”Firsthand reports by white Union soldiers who witnessed actual slavery during the Civil War rendered the “white slavery” argument ridiculous. But its operating premises—white labor as noble archetype, and black labor as something else—lived on. This was a matter of rhetoric, not fact. The noble-white-labor archetype did not give white workers immunity from capitalism. It could not, in itself, break monopolies, alleviate white poverty in Appalachia or the South, or bring a decent wage to immigrant ghettos in the North. But the model for America’s original identity politics was set. Black lives literally did not matter and could be cast aside altogether as the price of even incremental gains for the white masses. It was this juxtaposition that allowed Theodore Bilbo to campaign for the Senate in the 1930s as someone who would “raise the same kind of hell as President Roosevelt” and later endorse lynching black people to keep them from voting.The juxtaposition between the valid and even virtuous interests of the “working class” and the invalid and pathological interests of black Americans was not the province merely of blatant white supremacists like Bilbo. The acclaimed scholar, liberal hero, and future senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in his time working for President Richard Nixon, approvingly quoted Nixon’s formulation of the white working class: “A new voice” was beginning to make itself felt in the country. “It is a voice that has been silent too long,” Nixon claimed, alluding to working-class whites. “It is a voice of people who have not taken to the streets before, who have not indulged in violence, who have not broken the law.”It had been only 18 years since the Cicero riots; eight years since Daisy and Bill Myers had been run out of Levittown, Pennsylvania; three years since Martin Luther King Jr. had been stoned while walking through Chicago’s Marquette Park. But as the myth of the virtuous white working class was made central to American identity, its sins needed to be rendered invisible. The fact was, working-class whites had been agents of racist terrorism since at least the draft riots of 1863; terrorism could not be neatly separated from the racist animus found in every class of whites. Indeed, in the era of lynching, the daily newspapers often whipped up the fury of the white masses by invoking the last species of property that all white men held in common—white women. But to conceal the breadth of white racism, these racist outbursts were often disregarded or treated not as racism but as the unfortunate side effect of legitimate grievances against capital. By focusing on that sympathetic laboring class, the sins of whiteness itself were, and are still being, evaded.When David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, shocked the country in 1990 by almost winning one of Louisiana’s seats in the U.S. Senate, the apologists came out once again. They elided the obvious—that Duke had appealed to the racist instincts of a state whose schools are, at this very moment, still desegregating—and instead decided that something else was afoot. “There is a tremendous amount of anger and frustration among working-class whites, particularly where there is an economic downturn,” a researcher told the Los Angeles Times. “These people feel left out; they feel government is not responsive to them.” By this logic, postwar America—with its booming economy and low unemployment—should have been an egalitarian utopia and not the violently segregated country it actually was.But this was the past made present. It was not important to the apologists that a large swath of Louisiana’s white population thought it was a good idea to send a white supremacist who once fronted a terrorist organization to the nation’s capital. Nor was it important that blacks in Louisiana had long felt left out. What was important was the fraying of an ancient bargain, and the potential degradation of white workers to the level of “negers.” “A viable left must find a way to differentiate itself strongly from such analysis,” David Roediger, the University of Kansas professor, has written.That challenge of differentiation has largely been ignored. Instead, an imagined white working class remains central to our politics and to our cultural understanding of those politics, not simply when it comes to addressing broad economic issues but also when it comes to addressing racism. At its most sympathetic, this belief holds that most Americans—regardless of race—are exploited by an unfettered capitalist economy. The key, then, is to address those broader patterns that afflict the masses of all races; the people who suffer from those patterns more than others (blacks, for instance) will benefit disproportionately from that which benefits everyone. “These days, what ails working-class and middle-class blacks and Latinos is not fundamentally different from what ails their white counterparts,” Senator Barack Obama wrote in 2006:
Downsizing, outsourcing, automation, wage stagnation, the dismantling of employer-based health-care and pension plans, and schools that fail to teach young people the skills they need to compete in a global economy.
Obama allowed that “blacks in particular have been vulnerable to these trends”—but less because of racism than for reasons of geography and job-sector distribution. This notion—raceless antiracism—marks the modern left, from the New Democrat Bill Clinton to the socialist Bernie Sanders. Few national liberal politicians have shown any recognition that there is something systemic and particular in the relationship between black people and their country that might require specific policy solutions.
IN 2016, HILLARY CLINTON acknowledged the existence of systemic racism more explicitly than any of her modern Democratic predecessors. She had to—black voters remembered too well the previous Clinton administration, as well as her previous campaign. While her husband’s administration had touted the rising-tide theory of economic growth, it did so while slashing welfare and getting “tough on crime,” a phrase that stood for specific policies but also served as rhetorical bait for white voters. One is tempted to excuse Hillary Clinton from having to answer for the sins of her husband. But in her 2008 campaign, she evoked the old dichotomy between white workers and loafing blacks, claiming to be the representative of “hardworking Americans, white Americans.” By the end of the 2008 primary campaign against Barack Obama, her advisers were hoping someone would uncover an apocryphal “whitey tape,” in which an angry Michelle Obama was alleged to have used the slur. During Bill Clinton’s presidential-reelection campaign in the mid-1990s, Hillary Clinton herself had endorsed the “super-predator” theory of William J. Bennett, John P. Walters, and John J. DiIulio Jr. This theory cast “inner-city” children of that era as “almost completely unmoralized” and the font of “a new generation of street criminals … the youngest, biggest and baddest generation any society has ever known.” The “baddest generation” did not become super-predators. But by 2016, they were young adults, many of whom judged Hillary Clinton’s newfound consciousness to be lacking.
It’s worth asking why the country has not been treated to a raft of sympathetic portraits of this “forgotten” young black electorate, forsaken by a Washington bought off by Davos elites and special interests. The unemployment rate for young blacks (20.6 percent) in July 2016 was double that of young whites (9.9 percent). And since the late 1970s, William Julius Wilson and other social scientists following in his wake have noted the disproportionate effect that the decline in manufacturing jobs has had on African American communities. If anyone should be angered by the devastation wreaked by the financial sector and a government that declined to prosecute the perpetrators, it is African Americans—the housing crisis was one of the primary drivers in the past 20 years of the wealth gap between black families and the rest of the country. But the cultural condescension toward and economic anxiety of black people is not news. Toiling blacks are in their proper state; toiling whites raise the specter of white slavery.Moreover, a narrative of long-neglected working-class black voters, injured by globalization and the financial crisis, forsaken by out-of-touch politicians, and rightfully suspicious of a return of Clintonism, does not serve to cleanse the conscience of white people for having elected Donald Trump. Only the idea of a long-suffering white working class can do that. And though much has been written about the distance between elites and “Real America,” the existence of a class-transcending, mutually dependent tribe of white people is evident.Joe Biden, then the vice president, last year:
“They’re all the people I grew up with … And they’re not racist. They’re not sexist.”
Bernie Sanders, senator and former candidate for president, last year:
“I come from the white working class, and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party cannot talk to the people where I came from.”
Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist, in February of this year:
My hometown, Yamhill, Ore., a farming community, is Trump country, and I have many friends who voted for Trump. I think they’re profoundly wrong, but please don’t dismiss them as hateful bigots.
These claims of origin and fidelity are not merely elite defenses of an aggrieved class but also a sweeping dismissal of the concerns of those who don’t share kinship with white men. “You can’t eat equality,” asserts Joe Biden—a statement worthy of someone unthreatened by the loss of wages brought on by an unwanted pregnancy, a background-check box at the bottom of a job application, or the deportation of a breadwinner. Within a week of Sanders lambasting Democrats for not speaking to “the people” where he “came from,” he was making an example of a woman who dreamed of representing the people where she came from. Confronted with a young woman who hoped to become the second Latina senator in American history, Sanders responded with a parody of the Clinton campaign: “It is not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’ No, that’s not good enough … One of the struggles that you’re going to be seeing in the Democratic Party is whether we go beyond identity politics.” The upshot—attacking one specimen of identity politics after having invoked another—was unfortunate.
Other Sanders appearances proved even more alarming. On MSNBC, he attributed Trump’s success, in part, to his willingness to “not be politically correct.” Sanders admitted that Trump had “said some outrageous and painful things, but I think people are tired of the same old, same old political rhetoric.” Pressed on the definition of political correctness, Sanders gave an answer Trump surely would have approved of. “What it means is you have a set of talking points which have been poll-tested and focus-group-tested,” Sanders explained. “And that’s what you say rather than what’s really going on. And often, what you are not allowed to say are things which offend very, very powerful people.”This definition of political correctness was shocking coming from a politician of the left. But it matched a broader defense of Trump voters. “Some people think that the people who voted for Trump are racists and sexists and homophobes and just deplorable folks,” Sanders said later. “I don’t agree.” This is not exculpatory. Certainly not every Trump voter is a white supremacist, just as not every white person in the Jim Crow South was a white supremacist. But every Trump voter felt it acceptable to hand the fate of the country over to one.One can, to some extent, understand politicians’ embracing a self-serving identity politics. Candidates for high office, such as Sanders, have to cobble together a coalition. The white working class is seen, understandably, as a large cache of potential votes, and capturing these votes requires eliding uncomfortable truths. But journalists have no such excuse. Again and again in the past year, Nicholas Kristof could be found pleading with his fellow liberals not to dismiss his old comrades in the white working class as bigots—even when their bigotry was evidenced in his own reporting. A visit to Tulsa, Oklahoma, finds Kristof wondering why Trump voters support a president who threatens to cut the programs they depend on. But the problem, according to Kristof ’s interviewees, isn’t Trump’s attack on benefits so much as an attack on their benefits. “There’s a lot of wasteful spending, so cut other places,” one man tells Kristof. When Kristof pushes his subjects to identify that wasteful spending, a fascinating target is revealed: “Obama phones,” the products of a fevered conspiracy theory that turned a long-standing government program into a scheme through which the then-president gave away free cellphones to undeserving blacks. Kristof doesn’t shift his analysis based on this comment and, aside from a one-sentence fact-check tucked between parentheses, continues on as though it were never said.Observing a Trump supporter in the act of deploying racism does not much perturb Kristof. That is because his defenses of the innate goodness of Trump voters and of the innate goodness of the white working class are in fact defenses of neither. On the contrary, the white working class functions rhetorically not as a real community of people so much as a tool to quiet the demands of those who want a more inclusive America.Mark Lilla’s New York Times essay “The End of Identity Liberalism,” published not long after last year’s election, is perhaps the most profound example of this genre. Lilla denounces the perversion of liberalism into “a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity,” which distorted liberalism’s message “and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.” Liberals have turned away from their working-class base, he says, and must look to the “pre-identity liberalism” of Bill Clinton and Franklin D. Roosevelt. You would never know from this essay that Bill Clinton was one of the most skillful identity politicians of his era—flying home to Arkansas to see a black man, the lobotomized Ricky Ray Rector, executed; upstaging Jesse Jackson at his own conference; signing the Defense of Marriage Act. Nor would you know that the “pre-identity” liberal champion Roosevelt depended on the literally lethal identity politics of the white-supremacist “solid South.” The name Barack Obama does not appear in Lilla’s essay, and he never attempts to grapple, one way or another, with the fact that it was identity politics—the possibility of the first black president—that brought a record number of black voters to the polls, winning the election for the Democratic Party, and thus enabling the deliverance of the ancient liberal goal of national health care. “Identity politics … is largely expressive, not persuasive,” Lilla claims. “Which is why it never wins elections—but can lose them.” That Trump ran and won on identity politics is beyond Lilla’s powers of conception. What appeals to the white working class is ennobled. What appeals to black workers, and all others outside the tribe, is dastardly identitarianism. All politics are identity politics—except the politics of white people, the politics of the bloody heirloom.White tribalism haunts even more-nuanced writers. George Packer’s New Yorker essay “The Unconnected” is a lengthy plea for liberals to focus more on the white working class, a population that “has succumbed to the ills that used to be associated with the black urban ‘underclass.’ ” Packer believes that these ills, and the Democratic Party’s failure to respond to them, explain much of Trump’s rise. Packer offers no opinion polls to weigh white workers’ views on “elites,” much less their views on racism. He offers no sense of how their views and their relationship to Trump differ from other workers’ and other whites’.That is likely because any empirical evaluation of the relationship between Trump and the white working class would reveal that one adjective in that phrase is doing more work than the other. In 2016, Trump enjoyed majority or plurality support among every economic branch of whites. It is true that his strongest support among whites came from those making $50,000 to $99,999. This would be something more than working-class in many nonwhite neighborhoods, but even if one accepts that branch as the working class, the difference between how various groups in this income bracket voted is revealing. Sixty-one percent of whites in this “working class” supported Trump. Only 24 percent of Hispanics and 11 percent of blacks did. Indeed, the plurality of all voters making less than $100,000 and the majority making less than $50,000 voted for the Democratic candidate. So when Packer laments the fact that “Democrats can no longer really claim to be the party of working people—not white ones, anyway,” he commits a kind of category error. The real problem is that Democrats aren’t the party of white people—working or otherwise. White workers are not divided by the fact of labor from other white demographics; they are divided from all other laborers by the fact of their whiteness.Packer’s essay was published before the election, and so the vote tally was not available. But it should not be surprising that a Republican candidate making a direct appeal to racism would drive up the numbers among white voters, given that racism has been a dividing line for the national parties since the civil-rights era. Packer finds inspiration for his thesis in West Virginia—a state that remained Democratic through the 1990s before turning decisively Republican, at least at the level of presidential politics. This relatively recent rightward movement evinces, to Packer, a shift “that couldn’t be attributed just to the politics of race.” This is likely true—the politics of race are, themselves, never attributable “just to the politics of race.” The history of slavery is also about the growth of international capitalism; the history of lynching must be seen in light of anxiety over the growing independence of women; the civil-rights movement can’t be disentangled from the Cold War. Thus, to say that the rise of Donald Trump is about more than race is to make an empty statement, one that is small comfort to the people—black, Muslim, immigrant—who live under racism’s boot.The dent of racism is not hard to detect in West Virginia. In the 2008 Democratic primary there, 95 percent of the voters were white. Twenty percent of those—one in five—openly admitted that race was influencing their vote, and more than 80 percent voted for Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama. Four years later, the incumbent Obama lost the primary in 10 counties to Keith Judd, a white felon incarcerated in a federal prison; Judd racked up more than 40 percent of the Democratic-primary vote in the state. A simple thought experiment: Can one imagine a black felon in a federal prison running in a primary against an incumbent white president doing so well?But racism occupies a mostly passive place in Packer’s essay. There’s no attempt to understand why black and brown workers, victimized by the same new economy and cosmopolitan elite that Packer lambastes, did not join the Trump revolution. Like Kristof, Packer is gentle with his subjects. When a woman “exploded” and told Packer, “I want to eat what I want to eat, and for them to tell me I can’t eat French fries or Coca-Cola—no way,” he sees this as a rebellion against “the moral superiority of elites.” In fact, this elite conspiracy dates back to 1894, when the government first began advising Americans on their diets. As recently as 2002, President George W. Bush launched the HealthierUS initiative, urging Americans to exercise and eat healthy food. But Packer never allows himself to wonder whether the explosion he witnessed had anything to do with the fact that similar advice now came from the country’s first black first lady. Packer concludes that Obama was leaving the country “more divided and angrier than most Americans can remember,” a statement that is likely true only because most Americans identify as white. Certainly the men and women forced to live in the wake of the beating of John Lewis, the lynching of Emmett Till, the firebombing of Percy Julian’s home, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers would disagree.
The triumph of Trump’s campaign of bigotry presented the problematic spectacle of an American president succeeding at best in spite of his racism and possibly because of it. Trump moved racism from the euphemistic and plausibly deniable to the overt and freely claimed. This presented the country’s thinking class with a dilemma. Hillary Clinton simply could not be correct when she asserted that a large group of Americans was endorsing a candidate because of bigotry. The implications—that systemic bigotry is still central to our politics; that the country is susceptible to such bigotry; that the salt-of-the-earth Americans whom we lionize in our culture and politics are not so different from those same Americans who grin back at us in lynching photos; that Calhoun’s aim of a pan-Caucasian embrace between workers and capitalists still endures—were just too dark. Leftists would have to cope with the failure, yet again, of class unity in the face of racism. Incorporating all of this into an analysis of America and the path forward proved too much to ask. Instead, the response has largely been an argument aimed at emotion—the summoning of the white working class, emblem of America’s hardscrabble roots, inheritor of its pioneer spirit, as a shield against the horrific and empirical evidence of trenchant bigotry.
Packer dismisses the Democratic Party as a coalition of “rising professionals and diversity.” The dismissal is derived from, of all people, Lawrence Summers, the former Harvard president and White House economist, who last year labeled the Democratic Party “a coalition of the cosmopolitan élite and diversity.” The inference is that the party has forgotten how to speak on hard economic issues and prefers discussing presumably softer cultural issues such as “diversity.” It’s worth unpacking what, precisely, falls under this rubric of “diversity”—resistance to the monstrous incarceration of legions of black men, resistance to the destruction of health providers for poor women, resistance to the effort to deport parents, resistance to a policing whose sole legitimacy is rooted in brute force, resistance to a theory of education that preaches “no excuses” to black and brown children, even as excuses are proffered for mendacious corporate executives “too big to jail.” That this suite of concerns, taken together, can be dismissed by both an elite economist like Summers and a brilliant journalist like Packer as “diversity” simply reveals the safe space they enjoy. Because of their identity.
WHEN BARACK OBAMA came into office, in 2009, he believed that he could work with “sensible” conservatives by embracing aspects of their policy as his own. Instead he found that his very imprimatur made that impossible. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that the GOP’s primary goal was not to find common ground but to make Obama a “one-term president.” A health-care plan inspired by Romneycare was, when proposed by Obama, suddenly considered socialist and, not coincidentally, a form of reparations. The first black president found that he was personally toxic to the GOP base. An entire political party was organized around the explicit aim of negating one man. It was thought by Obama and some of his allies that this toxicity was the result of a relentless assault waged by Fox News and right-wing talk radio. Trump’s genius was to see that it was something more, that it was a hunger for revanche so strong that a political novice and accused rapist could topple the leadership of one major party and throttle the heavily favored nominee of the other.
“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters,” Trump bragged in January 2016. This statement should be met with only a modicum of skepticism. Trump has mocked the disabled, withstood multiple accusations of sexual violence (all of which he has denied), fired an FBI director, sent his minions to mislead the public about his motives, personally exposed those lies by boldly stating his aim to scuttle an investigation into his possible collusion with a foreign power, then bragged about that same obstruction to representatives of that same foreign power. It is utterly impossible to conjure a black facsimile of Donald Trump—to imagine Obama, say, implicating an opponent’s father in the assassination of an American president or comparing his physical endowment with that of another candidate and then successfully capturing the presidency. Trump, more than any other politician, understood the valence of the bloody heirloom and the great power in not being a nigger.But the power is ultimately suicidal. Trump evinces this, too. In a recent New Yorker article, a former Russian military officer pointed out that interference in an election could succeed only where “necessary conditions” and an “existing background” were present. In America, that “existing background” was a persistent racism, and the “necessary condition” was a black president. The two related factors hobbled America’s ability to safeguard its electoral system. As late as July 2016, a majority of Republican voters doubted that Barack Obama had been born in the United States, which is to say they did not view him as a legitimate president. Republican politicians acted accordingly, infamously denying his final Supreme Court nominee a hearing and then, fatefully, refusing to work with the administration to defend the country against the Russian attack. Before the election, Obama found no takers among Republicans for a bipartisan response, and Obama himself, underestimating Trump and thus underestimating the power of whiteness, believed the Republican nominee too objectionable to actually win. In this Obama was, tragically, wrong. And so the most powerful country in the world has handed over all its affairs—the prosperity of its entire economy; the security of its 300 million citizens; the purity of its water, the viability of its air, the safety of its food; the future of its vast system of education; the soundness of its national highways, airways, and railways; the apocalyptic potential of its nuclear arsenal—to a carnival barker who introduced the phrase grab ’em by the pussy into the national lexicon. It is as if the white tribe united in demonstration to say, “If a black man can be president, then any white man—no matter how fallen—can be president.” And in that perverse way, the democratic dreams of Jefferson and Jackson were fulfilled.The American tragedy now being wrought is larger than most imagine and will not end with Trump. In recent times, whiteness as an overt political tactic has been restrained by a kind of cordiality that held that its overt invocation would scare off “moderate” whites. This has proved to be only half true at best. Trump’s legacy will be exposing the patina of decency for what it is and revealing just how much a demagogue can get away with. It does not take much to imagine another politician, wiser in the ways of Washington and better schooled in the methodology of governance—and now liberated from the pretense of antiracist civility—doing a much more effective job than Trump.It has long been an axiom among certain black writers and thinkers that while whiteness endangers the bodies of black people in the immediate sense, the larger threat is to white people themselves, the shared country, and even the whole world. There is an impulse to blanch at this sort of grandiosity. When W. E. B. Du Bois claims that slavery was “singularly disastrous for modern civilization” or James Baldwin claims that whites “have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white,” the instinct is to cry exaggeration. But there really is no other way to read the presidency of Donald Trump. The first white president in American history is also the most dangerous president—and he is made more dangerous still by the fact that those charged with analyzing him cannot name his essential nature, because they too are implicated in it.
Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression. This was a definition of feminism I offered in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center more than 10 years ago. It was my hope at the time that it would become a common definition everyone would use. I liked this definition because it did not imply that men were the enemy. By naming sexism as the problem it went directly to the heart of the matter. Practically, it is a definition which implies that all sexist thinking and action is the problem, whether those who perpetuate it are female or male, child or adult. It is also broad enough to include an understanding of systemic institutionalized sexism. As a definition it is open-ended. To understand feminism it implies one has to necessarily understand sexism.
As all advocates of feminist politics know, most people do not understand sexism, or if they do, they think it is not a problem. Masses of people think that feminism is always and only about women seeking to be equal to men. And a huge majority of these folks think feminism is anti-male. Their misunderstanding of feminist politics reflects the reality that most folks learn about feminism from patriarchal mass media.” (~quotes from bell hooks, chapter 1 ‘FEMINIST POLITICS Where We Stand’ in Feminism is for Everybody)
“The issue is really one of standpoint. From what political perspective do we dream, look, create, and take action? For those of us who dare to desire differently, who seek to look away from the conventional ways of seeing blackness and ourselves, the issue of race and representation is not just a question of critiquing the status quo. It is also about transforming the image, creating alternatives, asking ourselves questions about what types of images subvert, pose critical alternatives, transform our world views and move us away from dualistic thinking about good and bad. Making a space for the transgressive image, the outlaw rebel vision, is essential to any effort to create a context for transformation. And even then little progress is made if we transform images without shifting paradigms, changing perspectives, and ways of looking.” (~ from Black Looks: Race and Representation)
This is one of the best in the lecture series by bell hooks at the New School. Cinematographer Arthur Jafa discusses Transgressions in Public Spaces, ‘who is looking’, and the common ground of racism and sexism with bell hooks as well as shares some of his stellar film work.
“Poetry is a useful place for lamentation…poems are a place where we can cry out.” ― bell hooks, Appalachian Elegy: Poetry and Place
“The Woman’s Mourning Song”
i cry i cry high this mourning song my heart rises sun in hand to make the bread i rise my heavy work hand needs the voice of many singers alone the warmth of many ovens comfort the warrior in me returns to slay sorrow to make the bread to sing the mourning song i cry high i cry high the mourning song go away death go from love’s house go make your empty bed by bell hooks
“sometimes falling rain carries memories of betrayal there in the woods where she was not meant to be too young she believes in her right to be free in her body free from harm believing nature a wilderness she can enter be solaced believing the power that there be sacred place that there can be atonement now she returns with no fear facing the past ready to risk knowing these woods now hold beauty and danger” quote from bell hooks, Appalachian Elegy: Poetry and Place
Those who have influenced bell hooks include African-American abolitionist and feminist Sojourner Truth (whose speech Ain’t I a Woman? inspired her first major work), Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (whose perspectives on education she embraces in her theory of engaged pedagogy), Peruvian theologian and Dominican priest Gustavo Gutierrez, psychologist Erich Fromm, playwright Lorraine Hansberry, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, African-American writer James Baldwin, Guyanese historian Walter Rodney, African-American black nationalist leader Malcolm X, and African-American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr (who addresses how the strength of love unites communities). As bell hooks says of Martin Luther King’s notion of a beloved community, “he had a profound awareness that the people involved in oppressive institutions will not change from the logics and practices of domination without engagement with those who are striving for a better way.”
“No profit in poetry, right? That’s a nation that’s going to hell. What will happen to generations who don’t have poetry? Even illiterate cultures have poetry. Poetry is part of the soul.” (quote from Komozi Woodard March 1990, SLC “Key Issues in African American History” course.)
Komozi Woodard is a professor of history at Sarah Lawrence College. He is the author of A Nation Within a Nation; a co-editor, with Sylviane A. Diouf, of Black Power 50 (The New Press); and the editor of The Black Power Movement, Part I; Freedom North; Groundwork; and Want to Start a Revolution?
During the Black Power Movement, Komozi Woodard served as head of economic development for the Temple of Kawaida in Newark, New Jersey and as editor of Unity and Struggle, the organ of the Congress of African People.
Black Power 50 Edited by: Sylviane A. Diouf Komozi Woodard With a foreword by Khalil Gibran Muhammad
The fully illustrated companion to a major exhibit at New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a sweeping fiftieth-anniversary retrospective of Black Power in America and around the world
Black Power burst onto the world scene in 1966 with ideas, politics, and fashion that opened the eyes of millions of people across the globe. In the United States, the movement spread like wildfire: high school and college youth organized black student unions; educators created black studies programs; Black Power conventions gathered thousands of people from all walks of life; and books, journals, bookstores, and publishing companies spread Black Power messages and imagery throughout the country and abroad.
The Black Arts Movement inspired the creation of some eight hundred black theaters and cultural centers, where a generation of writers and artists forged a new and enduring cultural vision.
Black Power 50 includes original interviews with key figures from the movement, essays from today’s leading Black Power scholars, and over one hundred stunning images, offering a beautiful and compelling introduction to this pivotal movement.
Poet and playwright Amiri Baraka is best known as one of the African American writers who helped ignite the Black Arts Movement. This book examines Baraka’s cultural approach to Black Power politics and explores his role in the phenomenal spread of black nationalism in the urban centers of late-twentieth-century America, including his part in the election of black public officials, his leadership in the Modern Black Convention Movement, and his work in housing and community development. Komozi Woodard traces Baraka’s transformation from poet to political activist, as the rise of the Black Arts Movement pulled him from political obscurity in the Beat circles of Greenwich Village, swept him into the center of the Black Power Movement, and ultimately propelled him into the ranks of black national political leadership. Moving outward from Baraka’s personal story, Woodard illuminates the dynamics and remarkable rise of black cultural nationalism with an eye toward the movement’s broader context, including the impact of black migrations on urban ethos, the importance of increasing population concentrations of African Americans in the cities, and the effect of the 1965 Voting Rights Act on the nature of black political mobilization.
To purchase the Nation within a Nation book go to:
This collection of Amiri Baraka materials was made available by Dr. Komozi Woodard. The collection consists of rare works of poetry, organizational records, print publications, over one hundred articles, poems, plays, and speeches by Baraka, a small amount of personal correspondence, and oral histories. The collection has been arranged into eighteen series. These series are: (1) Black Arts Movement; (2) Black Nationalism; (3) Correspondence; (4) Newark (New Jersey); (5) Congress of African People; (6) National Black Conferences and National Black Assembly; (7) Black Women’s United Front; (8) Student Organization for Black Unity; (9) African Liberation Support Committee; (10) Revolutionary Communist League; (11) African Socialism; (12) Black Marxists; (13) National Black United Front; (14) Miscellaneous Materials, 1978-1988; (15) Serial Publications; (16) Oral Histories; (17) Woodard’s Office Files; and (18) Audio Visual. Dr. Woodard collected these documents during his career as an activist in Newark, New Jersey.
“Incident” (Poem) BY AMIRI BARAKA He came back and shot. He shot him. When he came back, he shot, and he fell, stumbling, past the shadow wood, down, shot, dying, dead, to full halt.
At the bottom, bleeding, shot dead. He died then, there after the fall, the speeding bullet, tore his face and blood sprayed fine over the killer and the grey light.
Pictures of the dead man, are everywhere. And his spirit sucks up the light. But he died in darkness darker than his soul and everything tumbled blindly with him dying
down the stairs.
We have no word
on the killer, except he came back, from somewhere to do what he did. And shot only once into his victim’s stare, and left him quickly when the blood ran out. We know
the killer was skillful, quick, and silent, and that the victim probably knew him. Other than that, aside from the caked sourness of the dead man’s expression, and the cool surprise in the fixture
Maya Angelou felt particularly connected with the work of William Shakespeare. After reading his Sonnet 29, she was known to say, “Shakespeare must be a black girl,” as he so perfectly articulated her experiences:
William Shakespeare’s SONNET 29:
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state, And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries, And look upon myself, and curse my fate, Wishing me like to one more rich in hope, Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d, Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope, With what I most enjoy contented least; Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising, Haply I think on thee, and then my state, Like to the lark at break of day arising From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate; For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
In an interview with Maya Angelou by David Frost for The New Sun, David Frost asked… DF: Where did Caged Bird come from, that title?
MA: It came from a poem written by Sir Lawrence Dunbar, a black male poet writing in the 1800s.
DF: Do you remember that?
MA: Yes. It’s called Sympathy — the poem.
I know what the caged bird feels. Ah me, when the sun is bright on the upland slopes, when the wind blows soft through the springing grass and the river floats like a sheet of glass, when the first bird sings and the first bud ops, and the faint perfume from its chalice steals. I know what the caged bird feels I know why the caged bird beats his wing till its blood is red on the cruel bars, for he must fly back to his perch and cling when he fain would be on the bow aswing. And the blood still throbs in the old, old scars and they pulse again with a keener sting. I know why he beats his wing. I know why the caged bird sings. Ah, me, when its wings are bruised and is bosom sore. It beats its bars and would be free. It’s not a carol of joy or glee, but a prayer that it send from its heart’s deep core, but a plea that upward to heaven it flings. I know why the caged bird sings.
Maya Angelou, The Art of Fiction No. 119 issue 116, Fall 1990 (the Paris Review) Interviewed byGeorge Plimpton
This interview was conducted on the stage of the YMHA on Manhattan’s upper East Side. A large audience, predominantly women, was on hand, filling indeed every seat, with standees in the back . . . a testament to Maya Angelou’s drawing power. Close to the stage was a small contingent of black women dressed in the white robes of the Black Muslim order. Her presence dominated the proceedings. Many of her remarks drew fervid applause, especially those which reflected her views on racial problems, the need to persevere, and “courage.” She is an extraordinary performer and has a powerful stage presence. Many of the answers seemed as much directed to the audience as to the interviewer so that when Maya Angelou concluded the evening by reading aloud from her work—again to a rapt audience—it seemed a logical extension of a planned entertainment.
INTERVIEWER You once told me that you write lying on a made-up bed with a bottle of sherry, a dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow pads, an ashtray, and a Bible. What’s the function of the Bible? MAYA ANGELOU The language of all the interpretations, the translations, of the Judaic Bible and the Christian Bible, is musical, just wonderful. I read the Bible to myself; I’ll take any translation, any edition, and read it aloud, just to hear the language, hear the rhythm, and remind myself how beautiful English is. Though I do manage to mumble around in about seven or eight languages, English remains the most beautiful of languages. It will do anything. INTERVIEWER Do you read it to get inspired to pick up your own pen? ANGELOU For melody. For content also. I’m working at trying to be a Christian and that’s serious business. It’s like trying to be a good Jew, a good Muslim, a good Buddhist, a good Shintoist, a good Zoroastrian, a good friend, a good lover, a good mother, a good buddy—it’s serious business. It’s not something where you think, Oh, I’ve got it done. I did it all day, hotdiggety. The truth is, all day long you try to do it, try to be it, and then in the evening if you’re honest and have a little courage you look at yourself and say, Hmm. I only blew it eighty-six times. Not bad. I’m trying to be a Christian and the Bible helps me to remind myself what I’m about. INTERVIEWER Do you transfer that melody to your own prose? Do you think your prose has that particular ring that one associates with the King James version? ANGELOU I want to hear how English sounds; how Edna St. Vincent Millay heard English. I want to hear it, so I read it aloud. It is not so that I can then imitate it. It is to remind me what a glorious language it is. Then, I try to be particular and even original. It’s a little like reading Gerard Manley Hopkins or Paul Laurence Dunbar or James Weldon Johnson. INTERVIEWER And is the bottle of sherry for the end of the day or to fuel the imagination? ANGELOU I might have it at six-fifteen a.m. just as soon as I get in, but usually it’s about eleven o’clock when I’ll have a glass of sherry. INTERVIEWER When you are refreshed by the Bible and the sherry, how do you start a day’s work? ANGELOU I have kept a hotel room in every town I’ve ever lived in. I rent a hotel room for a few months, leave my home at six, and try to be at work by six-thirty. To write, I lie across the bed, so that this elbow is absolutely encrusted at the end, just so rough with callouses. I never allow the hotel people to change the bed, because I never sleep there. I stay until twelve-thirty or one-thirty in the afternoon, and then I go home and try to breathe; I look at the work around five; I have an orderly dinner—proper, quiet, lovely dinner; and then I go back to work the next morning. Sometimes in hotels I’ll go into the room and there’ll be a note on the floor which says, Dear Miss Angelou, let us change the sheets. We think they are moldy. But I only allow them to come in and empty wastebaskets. I insist that all things are taken off the walls. I don’t want anything in there. I go into the room and I feel as if all my beliefs are suspended. Nothing holds me to anything. No milkmaids, no flowers, nothing. I just want to feel and then when I start to work I’ll remember. I’ll read something, maybe the Psalms, maybe, again, something from Mr. Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson. And I’ll remember how beautiful, how pliable the language is, how it will lend itself. If you pull it, it says, OK.” I remember that and I start to write. Nathaniel Hawthorne says, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” I try to pull the language in to such a sharpness that it jumps off the page. It must look easy, but it takes me forever to get it to look so easy. Of course, there are those critics—New York critics as a rule—who say, Well, Maya Angelou has a new book out and of course it’s good but then she’s a natural writer. Those are the ones I want to grab by the throat and wrestle to the floor because it takes me forever to get it to sing. I work at the language. On an evening like this, looking out at the auditorium, if I had to write this evening from my point of view, I’d see the rust-red used worn velvet seats and the lightness where people’s backs have rubbed against the back of the seat so that it’s a light orange, then the beautiful colors of the people’s faces, the white, pink-white, beige-white, light beige and brown and tan—I would have to look at all that, at all those faces and the way they sit on top of their necks. When I would end up writing after four hours or five hours in my room, it might sound like, It was a rat that sat on a mat. That’s that. Not a cat. But I would continue to play with it and pull at it and say, I love you. Come to me. I love you. It might take me two or three weeks just to describe what I’m seeing now. INTERVIEWER How do you know when it’s what you want? ANGELOU I know when it’s the best I can do. It may not be the best there is. Another writer may do it much better. But I know when it’s the best I can do. I know that one of the great arts that the writer develops is the art of saying, “No. No, I’m finished. Bye.” And leaving it alone. I will not write it into the ground. I will not write the life out of it. I won’t do that. INTERVIEWER How much revising is involved? ANGELOU I write in the morning and then go home about midday and take a shower, because writing, as you know, is very hard work, so you have to do a double ablution. Then I go out and shop—I’m a serious cook—and pretend to be normal. I play sane—Good morning! Fine, thank you. And you? And I go home. I prepare dinner for myself and if I have houseguests, I do the candles and the pretty music and all that. Then after all the dishes are moved away I read what I wrote that morning. And more often than not if I’ve done nine pages I may be able to save two and a half or three. That’s the cruelest time you know, to really admit that it doesn’t work. And to blue pencil it. When I finish maybe fifty pages and read them—fifty acceptable pages—it’s not too bad. I’ve had the same editor since 1967. Many times he has said to me over the years or asked me, Why would you use a semicolon instead of a colon? And many times over the years I have said to him things like: I will never speak to you again. Forever. Goodbye. That is it. Thank you very much. And I leave. Then I read the piece and I think of his suggestions. I send him a telegram that says, OK, so you’re right. So what? Don’t ever mention this to me again. If you do, I will never speak to you again. About two years ago I was visiting him and his wife in the Hamptons. I was at the end of a dining room table with a sit-down dinner of about fourteen people. Way at the end I said to someone, I sent him telegrams over the years. From the other end of the table he said, And I’ve kept every one! Brute! But the editing, one’s own editing, before the editor sees it, is the most important. INTERVIEWER The five autobiographical books follow each other in chronological order. When you started writing I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings did you know that you would move on from that? It almost works line by line into the second volume. ANGELOU I know, but I didn’t really mean to. I thought I was going to write Caged Bird and that would be it and I would go back to playwriting and writing scripts for television. Autobiography is awfully seductive; it’s wonderful. Once I got into it I realized I was following a tradition established by Frederick Douglass—the slave narrative—speaking in the first-person singular talking about the first-person plural, always saying I meaning we. And what a responsibility! Trying to work with that form, the autobiographical mode, to change it, to make it bigger, richer, finer, and more inclusive in the twentieth century has been a great challenge for me. I’ve written five now and I really hope—the works are required reading in many universities and colleges in the United States—that people readmy work. The greatest compliment I receive is when people walk up to me on the street or in airports and say, Miss Angelou, I wrote your books last year and I really—I mean I read . . . That is it—that the person has come into the books so seriously, so completely, that he or she, black or white, male or female, feels, That’s my story. I told it. I’m making it up on the spot. That’s the great compliment. I didn’t expect, originally, that I was going to continue with the form. I thought I was going to write a little book and it would be fine and I would go on back to poetry, write a little music. INTERVIEWER What about the genesis of the first book? Who were the people who helped you shape those sentences that leap off the page? ANGELOU Oh well, they started years and years before I ever wrote, when I was very young. I loved the black American minister. I loved the melody of the voice and the imagery, so rich and almost impossible. The minister in my church in Arkansas, when I was very young, would use phrases such as “God stepped out, the sun over his right shoulder, the moon nestling in the palm of his hand.” I mean, I just loved it, and I loved the black poets, and I loved Shakespeare, and Edgar Allan Poe, and I liked Matthew Arnold a lot—still do. Being mute for a number of years, I read and memorized, and all those people have had tremendous influence . . . in the first book and even in the most recent book. INTERVIEWER Mute? ANGELOU I was raped when I was very young. I told my brother the name of the person who had done it. Within a few days the man was killed. In my child’s mind—seven and a half years old—I thought my voice had killed him. So I stopped talking for five years. Of course I’ve written about this in Caged Bird. INTERVIEWER When did you decide you were going to be a writer? Was there a moment when you suddenly said, This is what I wish to do for the rest of my life? ANGELOU Well, I had written a television series for PBS, and I was going out to California. I thought I was a poet and playwright. That was what I was going to do the rest of my life. Or become famous as a real estate broker. This sounds like name-dropping, and it really is, but James Baldwin took me over to dinner with Jules and Judy Feiffer one evening. All three of them are great talkers. They went on with their stories and I had to fight for the right to play it good. I had to insert myself to tell some stories too. Well, the next day Judy Feiffer called Bob Loomis, an editor at Random House, and suggested that if he could get me to write an autobiography, he’d have something. So he phoned me and I said, No, under no circumstances; I certainly will not do such a thing. So I went out to California to produce this series on African and black American culture. Loomis called me out there about three times. Each time I said no. Then he talked to James Baldwin. Jimmy gave him a ploy which always works with me—though I’m not proud to say that. The next time he called, he said, Well, Miss Angelou. I won’t bother you again. It’s just as well that you don’t attempt to write this book, because to write autobiography as literature is almost impossible. I said, What are you talking about? I’ll do it. I’m not proud about this button that can be pushed and I will immediately jump. INTERVIEWER Do you select a dominant theme for each book? ANGELOU I try to remember times in my life, incidents in which there was the dominating theme of cruelty, or kindness, or generosity, or envy, or happiness, glee . . . perhaps four incidents in the period I’m going to write about. Then I select the one that lends itself best to my device and that I can write as drama without falling into melodrama. INTERVIEWER Did you write for a particular audience? ANGELOU I thought early on if I could write a book for black girls it would be good because there were so few books for a black girl to read that said this is how it is to grow up. Then, I thought, I’d better, you know, enlarge that group, the market group that I’m trying to reach. I decided to write for black boys and then white girls and then white boys. But what I try to keep in mind mostly is my craft. That’s what I really try for; I try to allow myself to be impelled by my art—if that doesn’t sound too pompous and weird—accept the impulse and then try my best to have a command of the craft. If I’m feeling depressed and losing my control then I think about the reader. But that is very rare—to think about the reader when the work is going on. INTERVIEWER So you don’t keep a particular reader in mind when you sit down in that hotel room and begin to compose or write. It’s yourself. ANGELOU It’s myself . . . and my reader. I would be a liar, a hypocrite, or a fool—and I’m not any of those—to say that I don’t write for the reader. I do. But for the reader who hears, who really will work at it, going behind what I seem to say. So I write for myself and that reader who will pay the dues. There’s a phrase in West Africa, in Ghana; it’s called “deep talk.” For instance, there’s a saying: “The trouble for the thief is not how to steal the chief’s bugle but where to blow it.” Now, on the face of it, one understands that. But when you really think about it, it takes you deeper. In West Africa they call that “deep talk.” I’d like to think I write “deep talk.” When you read me, you should be able to say, Gosh, that’s pretty. That’s lovely. That’s nice. Maybe there’s something else? Better read it again. Years ago I read a man named Machado de Assis who wrote a book called Dom Casmurro. Machado de Assis is a South American writer—black father, Portuguese mother—writing in 1865, say. I thought the book was very nice. Then I went back and read the book and said, Hmm. I didn’t realize all that was in that book. Then I read it again, and again, and I came to the conclusion that what Machado de Assis had done for me was almost a trick: he had beckoned me onto the beach to watch a sunset. And I had watched the sunset with pleasure. When I turned around to come back in I found that the tide had come in over my head. That’s when I decided to write. I would write so that the reader says, That’s so nice. Oh boy, that’s pretty. Let me read that again. I think that’s why Caged Bird is in its twenty-first printing in hardcover and its twenty-ninth in paper. All my books are still in print, in hardback as well as paper, because people go back and say, Let me read that. Did she really say that? INTERVIEWER The books are episodic, aren’t they? Almost as if you had put together a string of short stories. I wondered if as an autobiographer you ever fiddled with the truth to make the story better. ANGELOU Well, sometimes. I love the phrase “fiddle with.” It’s so English. Sometimes I make a character from a composite of three or four people, because the essence in any one person is not sufficiently strong to be written about. Essentially though, the work is true though sometimes I fiddle with the facts. Many of the people I’ve written about are alive today and I have them to face. I wrote about an ex-husband—he’s an African—in The Heart of a Woman. Before I did, I called him in Dar-es-Salaam and said, I’m going to write about some of our years together. He said, Now before you ask, I want you to know that I shall sign my release, because I know you will not lie. However, I am sure I shall argue with you about your interpretation of the truth. INTERVIEWER Did he enjoy his portrait finally or did you argue about it? ANGELOU Well, he didn’t argue, but I was kind too. INTERVIEWER I would guess this would make it very easy for you to move from autobiography into novel, where you can do anything you want with your characters. ANGELOU Yes, but for me, fiction is not the sweetest form. I really am trying to do something with autobiography now. It has caught me. I’m using the first-person singular and trying to make that the first-person plural, so that anybody can read the work and say, Hmm, that’s the truth, yes, uh-huh, and live in the work. It’s a large, ambitious dream. But I love the form. INTERVIEWER Aren’t the extraordinary events of your life very hard for the rest of us to identify with? ANGELOU Oh my God, I’ve lived a very simple life! You can say, Oh yes, at thirteen this happened to me and at fourteen . . . But those are facts. But the facts can obscure the truth, what it really felt like. Every human being has paid the earth to grow up. Most people don’t grow up. It’s too damn difficult. What happens is most people get older. That’s the truth of it. They honor their credit cards, they find parking spaces, they marry, they have the nerve to have children, but they don’t grow up. Not really. They get older. But to grow up costs the earth, the earth. It means you take responsibility for the time you take up, for the space you occupy. It’s serious business. And you find out what it costs us to love and to lose, to dare and to fail. And maybe even more, to succeed. What it costs, in truth. Not superficial costs—anybody can have that—I mean in truth. That’s what I write. What it really is like. I’m just telling a very simple story. INTERVIEWER Aren’t you tempted to lie? Novelists lie, don’t they? ANGELOU I don’t know about lying for novelists. I look at some of the great novelists, and I think the reason they are great is that they’re telling the truth. The fact is they’re using made-up names, made-up people, made-up places, and made-up times, but they’re telling the truth about the human being—what we are capable of, what makes us lose, laugh, weep, fall down, and gnash our teeth and wring our hands and kill each other and love each other.
INTERVIEWER James Baldwin, along with a lot of writers in this series, said that “when you’re writing you’re trying to find out something you didn’t know.” When you write do you search for something that you didn’t know about yourself or about us? ANGELOU Yes. When I’m writing, I am trying to find out who I am, who we are, what we’re capable of, how we feel, how we lose and stand up, and go on from darkness into darkness. I’m trying for that. But I’m also trying for the language. I’m trying to see how it can really sound. I really love language. I love it for what it does for us, how it allows us to explain the pain and the glory, the nuances and the delicacies of our existence. And then it allows us to laugh, allows us to show wit. Real wit is shown in language. We need language. INTERVIEWER Baldwin also said that his family urged him not to become a writer. His father felt that there was a white monopoly in publishing. Did you ever have any of those feelings—that you were going up against something that was really immensely difficult for a black writer? ANGELOU Yes, but I didn’t find it so just in writing. I’ve found it so in all the things I’ve attempted. In the shape of American society, the white male is on top, then the white female, and then the black male, and at the bottom is the black woman. So that’s been always so. That is nothing new. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t shock me, shake me up . . . INTERVIEWER I can understand that in various social stratifications, but why in art? ANGELOU Well, unfortunately, racism is pervasive. It doesn’t stop at the university gate, or at the ballet stage. I knew great black dancers, male and female, who were told early on that they were not shaped, physically, for ballet. Today, we see very few black ballet dancers. Unfortunately, in the theater and in film, racism and sexism stand at the door. I’m the first black female director in Hollywood; in order to direct, I went to Sweden and took a course in cinematography so I would understand what the camera would do. Though I had written a screenplay, and even composed the score, I wasn’t allowed to direct it. They brought in a young Swedish director who hadn’t even shaken a black person’s hand before. The film was Georgia, Georgia with Diana Sands. People either loathed it or complimented me. Both were wrong, because it was not what I wanted, not what I would have done if I had been allowed to direct it. So I thought, Well, what I guess I’d better do is be ten times as prepared. That is not new. I wish it was. In every case I know I have to be ten times more prepared than my white counterpart. INTERVIEWER Even as a writer where . . . ANGELOU Absolutely. INTERVIEWER Yet a manuscript is what arrives at the editor’s desk, not a person, not a body. ANGELOU Yes. I must have such control of my tools, of words, that I can make this sentence leap off the page. I have to have my writing so polished that it doesn’t look polished at all. I want a reader, especially an editor, to be a half-hour into my book before he realizes it’s reading he’s doing. INTERVIEWER But isn’t that the goal of every person who sits down at a typewriter? ANGELOU Absolutely. Yes. It’s possible to be overly sensitive, to carry a bit of paranoia along with you. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It keeps you sharp, keeps you on your toes. INTERVIEWER Is there a thread one can see through the five autobiographies? It seems to me that one prevailing theme is the love of your child. ANGELOU Yes, well, that’s true. I think that that’s a particular. I suppose, if I’m lucky, the particular is seen in the general. There is, I hope, a thesis in my work: we may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated. That sounds goody-two-shoes, I know, but I believe that a diamond is the result of extreme pressure and time. Less time is crystal. Less than that is coal. Less than that is fossilized leaves. Less than that it’s just plain dirt. In all my work, in the movies I write, the lyrics, the poetry, the prose, the essays, I am saying that we may encounter many defeats—maybe it’s imperative that we encounter the defeats—but we are much stronger than we appear to be and maybe much better than we allow ourselves to be. Human beings are more alike than unalike. There’s no real mystique. Every human being, every Jew, Christian, backslider, Muslim, Shintoist, Zen Buddhist, atheist, agnostic, every human being wants a nice place to live, a good place for the children to go to school, healthy children, somebody to love, the courage, the unmitigated gall to accept love in return, someplace to party on Saturday or Sunday night, and someplace to perpetuate that God. There’s no mystique. None. And if I’m right in my work, that’s what my work says. INTERVIEWER Have you been back to Stamps, Arkansas? ANGELOU About 1970, Bill Moyers, Willie Morris, and I were at some affair. Judith Moyers as well—I think she was the instigator. We may have had two or three scotches, or seven or eight. Willie Morris was then with Harper’s magazine. The suggestion came up: Why don’t we all go back South? Willie Morris was from Yazoo, Mississippi. Bill Moyers is from Marshall, Texas, which is just a hop, skip, and a jump—about as far as you can throw a chitterling—from Stamps, my hometown. Sometime in the middle of the night there was this idea: Why don’t Bill Moyers and Maya Angelou go to Yazoo, Mississippi to visit Willie Morris? Then why don’t Willie Morris and Maya Angelou go to Marshall, Texas, to visit Bill Moyers? I said, Great. I was agreeing with both. Then they said Willie Morris and Bill Moyers would go to Stamps, Arkansas to visit Maya Angelou, and I said, No way, José. I’m not going back to that little town with two white men! I will not do it! Well, after a while Bill Moyers called me—he was doing a series on “creativity”—and he said, Maya, come on, let’s go to Stamps. I said, No way. He continued, I want to talk about creativity. I said, You know, I don’t want to know where it resides. I really don’t, and I still don’t. One of the problems in the West is that people are too busy putting things under microscopes and so forth. Creativity is greater than the sum of its parts. All I want to know is that creativity is there. I want to know that I can put my hand behind my back like Tom Thumb and pull out a plum. Anyway, Moyers went on and on and so did Judith and before I knew it, I found myself in Stamps, Arkansas. Stamps, Arkansas! With Bill Moyers, in front of my grandmother’s door. My God! We drove out of town—me with Bill and Judith. Back of us was the crew, a New York crew, you know, very “Right, dig where I’m comin’ from, like, get it on,” and so forth. We got about three miles outside of Stamps and I said, Stop the car. Let the car behind us pull up. Get those people in with you and I’ll take their car. I suddenly was taken back to being twelve years old in a Southern, tiny town where my grandmother told me, Sistah, never be on a country road with any white boys. I was two hundred years older than black pepper, but I said, Stop the car. I did. I got out of the car. And I knew these guys—certainly Bill. Bill Moyers is a friend and brother-friend to me; we care for each other. But dragons, fears, the grotesques of childhood always must be confronted at childhood’s door. Any other place is esoteric and has nothing to do with the great fear that is laid upon one as a child. So anyway, we did Bill Moyers’s show. And it seems to be a very popular program, and it’s the first of the “creativity” programs . . . INTERVIEWER Did going back assuage those childhood fears? ANGELOU They are there like griffins hanging off the sides of old and tired European buildings. INTERVIEWER It hadn’t changed? ANGELOU No, worse if anything. INTERVIEWER But it was forty years before you went back to the South, to North Carolina. Was that because of a fear of finding griffins everywhere, Stamps being a typical community of the South? ANGELOU Well, I’ve never felt the need to prove anything to an audience. I’m always concerned about who I am to me first—to myself and God. I really am. I didn’t go south because I didn’t want to pull up whatever clout I had, because that’s boring, that’s not real, not true; that doesn’t tell me anything. If I had known I was afraid, I would have gone earlier. I just thought I’d find the South really unpleasant. I have moved south now. I live there. INTERVIEWER Perhaps writing the autobiographies, finding out about yourself, would have made it much easier to go back. ANGELOU I know many think that writing sort of “clears the air.” It doesn’t do that at all. If you are going to write autobiography, don’t expect that it will clear anything up. It makes it more clear to you, but it doesn’t alleviate anything. You simply know it better, you have names for people. INTERVIEWER There’s a part in Caged Bird where you and your brother want to do a scene from The Merchant of Venice, and you don’t dare do it because your grandmother would find out that Shakespeare was not only deceased but white. ANGELOU I don’t think she’d have minded if she’d known he was deceased. I tried to pacify her—my mother knew Shakespeare but my grandmother was raising us. When I told her I wanted to recite—it was actually Portia’s speech—Mama said to me, Now, sistah, what are you goin’ to render? The phrase was so fetching. The phrase was “Now, little mistress Marguerite will render her rendition.” Mama said, Now, sistah, what are you goin’ to render? I said, Mama, I’m going to render a piece written by William Shakespeare. My grandmother asked me, Now, sistah, who is this very William Shakespeare? I had to tell her that he was white, it was going to come out. Somebody would let it out. So I told Mama, Mama, he’s white but he’s dead. Then I said, He’s been dead for centuries, thinking she’d forgive him because of this little idiosyncrasy. She said, No Ma’am, little mistress you will not. No Ma’am, little mistress you will not. So I rendered James Weldon Johnson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes. INTERVIEWER Were books allowed in the house? ANGELOU None of those books were in the house; they were in the school. I’d bring them home from school, and my brother gave me Edgar Allan Poe because he knew I loved him. I loved him so much I called him EAP. But as I said, I had a problem when I was young: from the time I was seven and a half to the time I was twelve and a half I was a mute. I could speak but I didn’t speak for five years and I was what was called a “volunteer mute.” But I read and I memorized just masses—I don’t know if one is born with photographic memory but I think you can develop it. I just have that. INTERVIEWER What is the significance of the title All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes? ANGELOU I never agreed, even as a young person, with the Thomas Wolfe title You Can’t Go Home Again. Instinctively I didn’t. But the truth is, you can never leave home. You take it with you; it’s under your fingernails; it’s in the hair follicles; it’s in the way you smile; it’s in the ride of your hips, in the passage of your breasts; it’s all there, no matter where you go. You can take on the affectations and the postures of other places and even learn to speak their ways. But the truth is, home is between your teeth. Everybody’s always looking for it: Jews go to Israel; black Americans and Africans in the Diaspora go to Africa; Europeans, Anglo-Saxons go to England and Ireland; people of Germanic background go to Germany. It’s a very queer quest. We can kid ourselves; we can tell ourselves, Oh yes, honey, I live in Tel Aviv, actually . . . The truth is a stubborn fact. So this book is about trying to go home. INTERVIEWER If you had to endow a writer with the most necessary pieces of equipment, other than, of course, yellow legal pads, what would these be? ANGELOU Ears. Ears. To hear the language. But there’s no one piece of equipment that is most necessary. Courage, first. INTERVIEWER Did you ever feel that you could not get your work published? Would you have continued to write if Random House had returned your manuscript? ANGELOU I didn’t think it was going to be very easy, but I knew I was going to do something. The real reason black people exist at all today is because there’s a resistance to a larger society that says you can’t do it—you can’t survive. And if you survive, you certainly can’t thrive. And if you thrive, you can’t thrive with any passion or compassion or humor or style. There’s a saying, a song that says, “Don’t you let nobody turn you ’round, turn you ’round. Don’t you let nobody turn you ‘round.” Well, I’ve always believed that. So knowing that, knowing that nobody could turn me ’round, if I didn’t publish, well, I would design this theater we’re sitting in. Yes. Why not? Some human being did it. I agree with Terence. Terence said homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto. I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me. When you look up Terence in the encyclopedia, you see beside his name, in italics, sold to a Roman senator, freed by that Senator. He became the most popular playwright in Rome. Six of his plays and that statement have come down to us from 154 b.c. This man, not born white, not born free, without any chance of ever receiving citizenship, said, I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me. Well, I believe that. I ingested that, internalized that at about thirteen or twelve. I believed if I set my mind to it, maybe I wouldn’t be published but I would write a great piece of music or do something about becoming a real friend. Yes, I would do something wonderful. It might be with my next-door neighbor, my gentleman friend, with my lover, but it would be wonderful as far as I could do it. So I never have been very concerned about the world telling me how successful I am. I don’t need that. INTERVIEWER You mentioned courage . . . ANGELOU . . .the most important of all the virtues. Without that virtue you can’t practice any other virtue with consistency. INTERVIEWER What do you think of white writers who have written of the black experience—Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury or William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner? ANGELOU Well, sometimes I am disappointed—more often than not. That’s unfair, because I’m not suggesting the writer is lying about what he or she sees. It’s my disappointment, really, in that he or she doesn’t see more deeply, more carefully. I enjoy seeing Peter O’Toole or Michael Caine enact the role of an upper-class person in England. There the working class has had to study the upper-class, has been obliged to do so, to lift themselves out of their positions. Well, black Americans have had to study white Americans. For centuries under slavery, the smile or the grimace on a white man’s face or the flow of a hand on a white woman could inform a black person that you’re about to be sold or flogged. So we have studied the white American, where the white American has not been obliged to study us. So often it is as if the writer is looking through a glass darkly. And I’m always a little—not a little—saddened by that poor vision. INTERVIEWER And you can pick it up in an instant if you . . . ANGELOU Yes, yes. There are some who delight and inform. It’s so much better, you see, for me, when a writer like Edna St. Vincent Millay speaks so deeply about her concern for herself and does not offer us any altruisms. Then when I look through her eyes at how she sees a black or an Asian my heart is lightened. But many of the other writers disappoint me. INTERVIEWER What is the best part of writing for you? ANGELOU Well, I could say the end. But when the language lends itself to me, when it comes and submits, when it surrenders and says, I am yours, darling—that’s the best part. INTERVIEWER You don’t skip around when you write? ANGELOU No, I may skip around in revision, just to see what connections I can find. INTERVIEWER Is most of the effort made in putting the words down onto the paper or is it in revision? ANGELOU Some work flows and, you know, you can catch three days. It’s like . . .I think the word in sailing is scudding—you know, three days of just scudding. Other days it’s just awful—plodding and backing up, trying to take out all the ands, ifs, tos, fors, buts, wherefores, therefores, howevers; you know, all those. INTERVIEWER And then, finally, you write “The End” and there it is; you have a little bit of sherry. ANGELOU A lot of sherry then.
In May 2014, after Maya Angelou’s death Joanna Connors on The Plain Dealer wrote:
When she was 8 years old, Maya Angelou stopped speaking. She silenced her voice because she thought her voice had killed a man. For almost five years, she spoke to no one but her beloved brother, Bailey.
The man she believed she had killed with her voice — her mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Freeman — had raped her. After she testified against him in his trial, he was convicted and sentenced, but released from jail. Four days later, he was found dead. Murdered. Probably by Angelou’s uncles, her memoir implies.
Her work and her life offer readers a personal journey through the African American experience of the 20th century, an experience that included friendships with Malcolm X, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin. She wrote with blazing honesty about racism, rape, her pregnancy at 16 and the deep fractures in her own family. Her strong voice spoke to countless readers, particularly black readers, who in 1969 were starved for literature by black authors writing intimately and truthfully about growing up and living in the “other” America.
But in “Caged Bird,” Angelou’s voice especially spoke to young women – young black women, but also young white women, who, even if they had not been raped or assaulted, always lived with the knowledge and fear of that trauma.
Many of us read “Caged Bird” in high school, an age when its themes of finding identity, strength and courage carry deep resonance. Angelou spoke to me, a middle-class white girl from the suburbs, in a voice that, once she started using it again, had a power that will live on long after her death.
Maya Angelou’s autobiographies:
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” (1969)
“Gather Together in My Name” (1974)
“Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas” (1976)
“The Heart of a Woman” (1981)
“All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes” (1986)
“A Song Flung Up to Heaven” (2002)
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: The Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou” (2004)
In the past year, Philadelphia native Marley Dias has successfully written a proposal for (and received) a Disney Friends for Change grant, served food to orphans in Ghana and recently launched a book club.
Dias is 11 years old.
“I’m hoping to show that other girls can do this as well,” Dias told PhillyVoice. “I used the resources I was given, and I want people to pass that down and use the things they’re given to create more social action projects — and do it just for fun, and not make it feel like a chore.”
Dias’ latest social action project is the “#1000BlackGirlBooks” book drive. Frustrated with many of the books she’s assigned in school, she confessed to her mother during dinner one night that she was unhappy with how monochromatic so many stories felt.
“I told her I was sick of reading about white boys and dogs,” Dias said, pointing specifically to “Where the Red Fern Grows” and the “Shiloh” series. “‘What are you going to do about it?’ [my mom] asked. And I told her I was going to start a book drive, and a specific book drive, where black girls are the main characters in the book and not background characters or minor characters.”
So far, she said, she’s collected about 400 books — nearly halfway to her goal of 1,000 by Feb. 1. The project is part of an annual social action effort she makes as part of the Philadelphia-founded GrassROOTS Community Foundation Super Camp for young girls, designed to empower and improve the health of ‘impoverished’ girls middle-school-aged and younger. Dias’ mother, Janice, cofounded the organization seven years ago with lead MC of The Roots, Tariq Trotter (aka, Black Thought). Janice, who grew up in Jamaica, calls watching her daughter grow up with such an investment in giving back a surreal experience. She further explained that her daughter’s “#1000BlackGirlBooks” project has been eye-opening even for her.
“I didn’t need identification, or I didn’t desire it because I grew up in an all-black country,” Janice told PhillyVoice. “She’s not growing up in an all-black country; she’s growing up in a fairly white suburb, in a country that only has 12.6 percent of blacks. For her, identification is a bigger deal. … For young black girls in the U.S., context is really important for them — to see themselves and have stories that reflect experiences that are closer to what they have or their friends have.
“And it doesn’t have to be the only thing they get, but the absence of it is clearly quite noticeable.”
The two just wrapped up a book drive at Lingelbach Elementary School in Germantown but are still on their way to hitting the 1,000-book mark. By the end of the drive, they’ll put together a reference guide that compiles the book titles, authors and age groups. Books collected will be donated to a low-resources library in St. Mary, Jamaica, where Janice grew up — in the spirit of giving back to their roots.
And in case you’re wondering what Dias wants to be when she grows up:
“I want to be a magazine editor for my own magazine,” she explained, without hesitation. “And I’d also like to continue social action. For the rest of my life.”
(Interview article written by BY BRANDON BAKER PhillyVoice Contributor)
This resource guide was created from the #1000blackgirlbooks campaign led by Marley Dias who has now collected over 9000 books. The guide includes some of those books that have been catalogued into an easy to find database. This information here is appropriate for youth, parents, educators, schools, and libraries.
Each month we will update the list and continue to serve as an information repository for Black Girl Books.
If you know of a black girl book, not listed here, please send us a copy so we can add it to our collection. We would like to see this list grow. Their address is:
GrassROOTS Community Foundation 59 Main Street Suite 323 West Orange, NJ 07052
Financial donations are always welcomed. All donations are tax-deductible.
Librarians are more freedom fighters than shushers” – Carla Hayden, Ms. Magazine
The new librarian of Congress on the value of ‘free information’
According to Hayden, the profession was “feminized” when Melvil Dewey, who created the Dewey decimal system, said “it was time to let women in because there was a lot of monotonous work to do. And he also said women in public libraries could be hostesses because they were part of the home”.
“Oh he was quite the fellow,” Hayden said, laughing. “So for a woman to be actual manager, CEO, is poetic justice.”
Hayden says she’s even more proud of her role as the first African American Librarian of Congress.
“I’ve talked for years and cited how slaves were forbidden to read, you could get your hand chopped off, or people who taught slaves to read were punished, that’s Fredrick Douglass’s thing,” Hayden said. “So to have an African American heading up the world’s largest library is not quite an oxymoron, but it speaks to the history.” (source: Baynard Woods, The Guardian 9-15-16 article)
PBS NEWS HOUR (video) The Library of Congress has a new chief: Carla Hayden. Jeffrey Brown speaks with Hayden about the continuing importance of the library in the digital age.
Hayden first came to national prominence in 2003 when she spoke out against certain elements of the Patriot Act as the head of the American Library Association. Attorney general John Ashcroft attacked Hayden for sowing “hysteria” about the provision of the act that would allow the government to search library and bookstore records.
Hayden shot back.
“We are deeply concerned that the attorney general should be so openly contemptuous of those who seek to defend our Constitution,” she said. “Rather than ask the nation’s librarians and Americans nationwide to ‘just trust him,’ Ashcroft could allay concerns by releasing aggregate information about the number of libraries visited using the expanded powers created by the USA Patriot Act.”
At the time, there was political risk in such statements, but Hayden said she never considered that.
“It wasn’t an either or – it was a how do we do both. How do ensure national security and protect a person’s right to know,” she said. “What was happening at that time was people wanted to know what are these groups [like Al Qaeda and the Taliban], a lot of people didn’t know what jihad meant or anything like that and they were seeking information and the concern was just because you want to know, you don’t intend to do anything. You just want to know.” (source: Baynard Woods, The Guardian 9-15-16 article)
Carla Hayden Sworn In as 14th Librarian of Congress (9/14/16, 12PM) Ceremony (video) Streamed live on Sep 14, 2016: Carla Hayden was sworn in as the 14th Librarian of Congress by Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts Jr. in the Great Hall of the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, September 14 at noon. Hayden is the first woman and the first African-American to serve as Librarian of Congress. Hayden was nominated by President Barack Obama and was confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
Today, I’m nominating Dr. Carla Hayden to be our 14th Librarian of Congress. Michelle and I have known Carla since her days working at the Chicago Public Library, and her dedication to learning and education is unparalleled. More recently, she’s been hard at work revitalizing Baltimore’s struggling library system as the CEO of Enoch Pratt Free Library. Last year, during the unrest in Baltimore, Dr. Hayden kept the doors of the Pratt open as a beacon for the community. Her understanding of the pivotal role that emerging technologies play in libraries will be essential in leading the Library of Congress as it continues to modernize its infrastructure and promote open access and full participation in today’s digital world. Finally, Dr. Hayden will be the first woman and the first African-American to hold this position in its 214 year history – both of which are long overdue. (from President Barack Obama’s Facebook)
The Library of Congress is the world’s largest library, the main research arm of the U.S. Congress and the home of the U.S. Copyright Office.https://www.loc.gov/
Hayden was the head of Baltimore’s library system since 1993 until she resigned earlier this year, after her nomination. When unrest erupted in the city after the death of Freddie Gray, a young black man who died in police custody, Hayden kept the libraries open, even though almost everything else was closed.
“My thinking was that at a time of crisis the library should try to be open,” she said. “And it was heartening that the staff members were willing.”
She tells the story of one young man who was there the morning after the riots to fill out job applications. When he returned two days later to tell her he had three interviews “It really reinforced the fact that the community needed us open”, she said. (source: Baynard Woods, The Guardian 9-15-16 article)