We are the wrong people of the wrong skin in the wrong continent and what in the hell is everybody being reasonable about?
There is a man who exists as one of the most popular objects of leadership, legislation, and quasi-literature in the history of all men. . . . This man, that object of attention, attack, and vast activity, cannot make himself be heard, let alone understood. He has never been listened to. . . . That man is Black and alive in white America where the media of communication do not allow the delivery of his own voice, his own desires, his own rage.
Body and soul, Black America reveals the extreme questions of contemporary life, questions of freedom and identity: How can I be who I am?
Self-determination has to mean that the leader is your individual gut, and heart, and mind or we’re talking about power, again, and its rather well-known impurities. Who is really going to care whether you live or die and who is going to know the most intimate motivation for your laughter and your tears is the only person to be trusted to speak for you and to decide what you will or will not do.
In America, the traditional routes to black identity have hardly been normal. Suicide (disappearance by imitation, or willed extinction), violence (hysterical religiosity, crime, armed revolt), and exemplary moral courage; none of these is normal.
Our children will not survive our habits of thinking, our failures of the spirit, our wreck of the universe into which we bring new life as blithely as we do. Mostly, our children will resemble our own misery and spite and anger, because we give them no choice about it. In the name of motherhood and fatherhood and education and good manners, we threaten and suffocate and bind and ensnare and bribe and trick children into wholesale emulation of our ways.
To rescue our children we will have to let them save us from the power we embody: we will have to trust the very difference that they forever personify. And we will have to allow them the choice, without fear of death: that they may come and do likewise or that they may come and that we will follow them, that a little child will lead us back to the child we will always be, vulnerable and wanting and hurting for love and for beauty.
I am a feminist, and what that means to me is much the same as the meaning of the fact that I am Black: it means that I must undertake to love myself and to respect myself as though my very life depends upon self-love and self-respect.
When we heard about the hippies, the barely more than boys and girls who decided to try something different . . . we laughed at them. Smug in our certain awareness that . . . communal life must be more difficult even than nuclear family life, which we know, to our very nerve endings, is disastrous, we condemned them, our children, for seeking a different future. We hated them for their flowers, for their love, and for their unmistakeable rejection of every hideous, mistaken compromise that we had made throughout our hollow, money-bitten, frightened, adult lives.
All of Western tradition, from the late bloom of the British Empire right through the early doom of Vietnam, dictates that you do something spectacular and irreversible whenever you find yourself in or whenever you impose yourself upon a wholly unfamiliar situation belonging to somebody else. Frequently it’s your soul or your honor or your manhood, or democracy itself, at stake.
When that devil’s bullet lodged itself inside the body of Martin Luther King, he had already begun an astonishing mobilization of poor, Black, white, latino Americans who had nothing to lose. They would challenge our government to eliminate exploitative, merciless, and war-mongering policies, nationwide, or else “tie up the country” through “means of civil disobedience.” Dr. King intended to organize those legions into “coercive direct actions” that would make of Babylon a dysfunctional behemoth begging for relief. Is it any wonder he was killed?
Language is political. That’s why you and me, my Brother and Sister, that’s why we sposed to choke our natural self into the weird, lying, barbarous, unreal, white speech and writing habits that the schools lay down like holy law. Because, in other words, the powerful don’t play; they mean to keep that power, and those who are the powerless (you and me) better shape up -- mimic/ape/suck -- in the very image of the powerful, or the powerful will destroy you -- you and our children.
The purpose of polite behavior is never virtuous. Deceit, surrender, and concealment: these are not virtues. The goal of the mannerly is comfort, per se.
In America, you can segregate the people, but the problems will travel. From slavery to equal rights, from state suppression of dissent to crime, drugs and unemployment, I can’t think of a supposedly Black issue that hasn’t wasted the original Black target group and then spread like measles to outlying white experience.
If any of us hopes to survive, s/he must meet the extremity of the American female condition with immediate and political response. The thoroughly destructive and indefensible subjugation of the majority of Americans cannot continue except at the peril of the entire body politic.
South Africa used to seem so far away. Then it came home to me. It began to signify the meaning of white hatred here. That was what the sheets and the suits and the ties covered up, not very well. That was what the cowardly guys calling me names from their speeding truck wanted to happen to me, to all of me: to my people. That was what would happen to me if I walked around the corner into the wrong neighborhood. That was Birmingham. That was Brooklyn. That was Reagan. That was the end of reason. South Africa was how I came to understand that I am not against war; I am against losing the war.
Lately . . . Americans have begun to understand that trouble does not start somewhere on the other side of town. It seems to originate inside the absolute middle of the homemade cherry pie. In our history, the state has failed to respond to the weak. . . . You could be white, male, Presbyterian and heterosexual besides, but if you get fired or if you get sick tomorrow, you might as well be Black, for all the state will want to hear from you.
We do not deride the fears of prospering white America. A nation of violence and private property has every reason to dread the violated and the deprived.
As a poet and writer, I deeply love and I deeply hate words. I love the infinite evidence and change and requirements and possibilities of language; every human use of words that is joyful, or honest or new, because experience is new. . . . But as a Black poet and writer, I hate words that cancel my name and my history and the freedom of my future: I hate the words that condemn and refuse the language of my people in America.
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