I Am Still Your Negro is a bold and enlightening collection of poetry, fit for everyone’s 2020 reading list
BY SOPHIE GRIFFITHS, IMAGE BY JUAN LUIS ROD
The latest poetry collection from Valerie Mason-John, I Am Still Your Negro touches base on so many of the darker elements of society that we face today. Through a fusion of villanelles, sonnets and haikus, Valerie here explores the African Diaspora, sexual assault, eating disorders and rave culture. She doesn’t shy away from the horrors faced, and through reading this collection you will come away enlightened on social justice issues far and wide.
With explorations of the past so often overlooking marginalised voices and experiences, Valerie Mason-John gives a voice to those who have been silenced. The poems are blunt and they are loud, but it ensure that the words will stay with you long after you put down the pages.
We caught up with Valerie (virtually, of course) to get to know more about her story and what led to such an impassioned collection of poetry that delves into trauma in both a personal and political sense.
DIVA: How would you describe this collection of poems in your own words?
VALERIE MASON-JOHN: I Am Still Your Negro: An Homage To James Baldwin is a collection of Social Justice Poetics, calling out the travesties that we as Black people are still experiencing today.
What was the catalyst that made you begin writing?
In 2016 I kept on waking up to the news that another Black person had been killed by the police. As a Buddhist and mindfulness teacher, we are often asked how can activism just be sitting on the cushion and meditating. This was what was coming up on my cushions, I needed to act and I needed to speak out. I had the privilege of the pen. Sitting on my cushion allowed me to have the bandwidth to hold people in their pain and fury around the inequities of BAME people. This collection shares our pain, hope and strength.
How was the writing process for this collection?
Some of the poems were written last year. Me Too, Call Me My Name, The Voice Of Yaata – and there are a couple of poems that had been written several years ago but had not been published. Some of my poems took several years to write, like Another One Bites The Dust. It took from 2016 to 2019 to write that sonnet. It was a prophetic journey. Yaata the Supreme Being of Kona in Sierra Leona spoke through me.
How does it feel to share so much of your personal life in your work? Was it cathartic or painful?
All writing is about the authors personal life. We just approach it differently. In this work I am both explicit and implicit. I am fortunate that I have the potency of the pen. Many people we see out on the streets have not had the privileges I have had.
Has it made you feel closer to your roots or to the queer community?
I retired from the queer community many moons ago. I stopped being a professional queer. I can never retire from being a Black person in the world. I am Black 24/7, professionally and personally.
How does the collection draw on your previous work?
I was contacted by the British Museum last month asking if it was okay if they could play a clip from my play Sin Dykes. I was astounded that what my characters were saying in 1999, is what people are still saying today. In that play I speak about police brutality, and I am still speaking about police brutality. When are things going to change?
Where does your love for James Baldwin and his work stem from?
James Baldwin is one of my ancestors, he is my hero in so many ways. The fact that he was gay makes him even more of an ancestor to me. You watch If Beale Street Could Talk, and you think “James was writing about things that are still happening today.” I love that his work still breathes.
Do you remember the first time you connected with his work?
James has always been an icon. My connection to him was first that he was gay. That led me to his work.
What’s your favourite poem from the collection and why?
Me Too is my favourite. It is witty, smart and educational. It makes sure we never forget that it was a Black woman who founded the Me Too movement.
How do you think we can build a better future moving forward from some of the more difficult themes in this collection such as racism and police brutality?
The UK first has to come out of denial and acknowledge that much of what is happening on the streets of Britain, on the streets of the USA, is because they were the main protagonists in the slave trade. Britain has to admit that it built a whole education system based on confounded facts by the English educational psychologist and geneticist Cyril Burt and his research assistant Hans Eysenck. Britain has to admit that many of its cities were built on the money made from slavery. Britain has to admit that it still has it’s hand in the oppression of BAME communities. The younger white queer generations have to come to terms with the fact that they have benefited from the white institutions that have had system racism for hundred of years. It’s not enough to say we are all queer, we are all the same. We are not, we are targeted on the streets because of our skin colour or race, which is why we don’t want the police marching with us at Pride.
Is there any further reading to this you can recommend to DIVA readers?
Stop reading and begin having the conversations about what it means to be white in this world. Begin to have the conversations about white fragility and racism among yourself. Begin to face up to the racist things that you were taught, and begin to challenge and unlearn them. If you must read, then read books from the BAME British community. We can get lost in the African American canon, and hence not recognise our leaders here in the UK.
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