Black Power Poets: Q&A with Amaris Selah

Poet Amaris Selah speaks after the August 2, 2013 screening “Revolution on Film: Black Power Poets” with Amiri Baraka: In Motion and Rainbow Black: Poet Sarah Webster Fabio (pictured at right) at the Logan Center for the Arts.

Michael Phillips (MP): I want to thank you for joining us. I’m Mike Phillips, I’m the director of South Side Projections. We have a special treat tonight for the Q&A after these two films. I’m really excited to welcome back Amaris Selah. Those of you who attended the opening nearly a month ago now will remember her performance from the opening reception. She’s originally from Virginia. She has degrees in architectural engineering and creative writing. She’s a poet and activist and educator, musician, a jewelry designer – an all around amazing person. She recorded an album of her poetry in 2011 called “Sell the Shadow.” Please join me in welcoming Amaris Selah.

I’m going to kick off the questioning. When I was doing some research on you so I could write that fumbling introduction, I noticed that you actually wrote a poem about Amiri Baraka, and it made me wonder, as sort of the next generation or even the next next generation of black poets, do you think a lot when you’re writing or performing about that legacy of Sarah Fabio and Carolyn Rogers and Amiri Baraka and all of these other poets?

Amaris Selah (AS): Yes I do. First of all I want to say thank you for having me out here and thank you to all of you for being a part of this event as well. I think it’s a very important event and it’s relevant to the times that we’re also in today, as far as talking about black power and of the black arts and so forth and so on. To answer your question, Michael: yes, for sure. For sure Amiri Baraka, Sarah Fabio, Sonia Sanchez, Haki Madhubuti, many of the black arts poets were very instrumental and influential in my writing, and when I write I have that legacy and that tradition that I intend on following and being a part of as I write. So I’m very conscious of what I’m doing, of the responsibility that I have as an artist and the functionality of my art.

MP: I was wondering if you could maybe talk a little bit about the Black Arts Movement, the poetry scene…about the role of women in it and maybe how you think about that now as a female poet.

AS: Ok. So first of all, I must say I love the short with Sarah Fabio and I love that her daughter was the one who produced it. I thought that was very powerful and that she spoke about generations of womanhood–her grandmother and her aunts and different instrumental women in her life. It made me think about some of those same things that I battle with and struggle with in my art, because I can’t divorce myself from the fact that I am a black woman in the world, and so when I write those things automatically are a part of what I write about and how I view the world and how I perceive the world. So it was very beautiful to see the many aspects of black womanhood through Cheryl Fabio and through her mother Sarah. Particularly, the whole idea of her being an educator and a mother and a wife and all these things at the same time as fighting against oppression and being very instrumental in the black arts movement. So I’m happy about any contribution that black women have to the arts, and I think it’s important to hear all the voices, so I like how we had Amiri Baraka juxtaposed with Sarah Fabio.

MP: You’re an activist among other things, and certainly Amiri Baraka was an activist and Sarah Fabio is considered the mother of black studies; it was through her sort of activism in an academic sphere that led to a lot of the black studies programs we have now. How do you see yourself as an artist activist, like how do you approach that?

AS: Well, art and activism to me are concepts that are married, they’re not divorced from one another in my opinion because in my personal writing, to be who I am in the world is sort of political whether I want it to be or not. To be a black woman, not rich (laughs) black woman in the world is political by itself whether I choose or try to choose to escape it, I really can’t. So art and activism have always been closely tied, not to mention I’ve always been a person who had a heart for the oppressed; I’m the person on the playground protecting the person who’s being picked on. This is who I am and I believe that a lot of the artists in the Black Arts Movement…Sarah Fabio talks about protest poetry and she talks about how she really didn’t feel like she had a choice. When certain things are happening around you, she mentioned a young boy dying–when certain things are happening around you, you have no choice but to be engaged in them. It’s like if I saw a child in the street dead and blood pouring from his body and I saw a flower bed of flowers behind him, I cannot write about the flower bed without writing about that child, and so art and activism are so much a part of my life that I have a hard time sort of divorcing them. I look for a time in the world when I can just simply write about that flower bed, but until then, I have no choice but to write about other things. So I began my activism in college and undergrad, I went to a HBCU [historically black college or university], North Carolina A&T, where I studied architectural engineering, but I was a lot more fascinated by poetry and black studies. I studied under Millicent Brown, and she was instrumental in pushing me, or just exposing certain things to me or just exposing certain things to me, ethnic notions and so forth and so on, where I began to fight against police brutality and against oppression when it came to the system.

MP: So, I’d like to open it up to the audience. Keep in mind that neither of us were involved in the making of the film, so we can’t answer a lot of questions about like the making of the film but we’ll do our best to address any other questions and if you have any comments that aren’t specifically about the films, please feel free to share.

Audience Member 1: Have you ever met Amiri Baraka or has he heard of your work or heard your work?

AS: I like to think that he’s heard my work, but I have not personally met Amiri Baraka. He does have still salons, as they mentioned, at his house to this day, and so friends of mine have been wanting to go and myself of course I’ve been wanting to go, so that’s a goal of mine to do very so.

Audience Member 2: Considering the large impact and in fact the arts had in the Civil Rights Movement, I just wanted to know your opinion on what place the arts have in this current political climate that we have going on today.

AS: I think that’s an important question, and when we talk about a legacy, the legacy of such poets as Baraka and Fabio and the Black Arts Movement, I think it’s particularly relevant to talk about that as a time such as now, where there are things still going on in the world that need to be addressed, and so I think, to answer your question, I think that arts and movements have always been very closely related, like the Black Arts Movement and the Black Power Movement were so interwoven, that many of the artists that were so-called just artists had no choice but to be political because of the times, and equally like the black panthers such as Stokely Carmichael was a poet who did poems at rallies and gathering for black power so, again, art and activism help fuel one another and support and encourage one another because the whole thing is, how can you really separate the two? I think the arts served as educating and raising awareness and became a vehicle for that. How can you really have a movement without shaping the minds of people? And so I think that that’s where the arts and politics sort of coincide.

Audience Member 2: I think that we don’t want to put too much…let me put it this way: the Black Arts Movement in Chicago came after the Civil Rights Movement in Chicago, and so it was not so much that the arts movement was influencing the Civil Rights Movement, the Civil Rights Movement influenced the Black Arts Movement. Chicago began organizing substantively in the–well, Chicago is always organized and we have to really look at stuff as a string, one thing leading to the next to the next to the next, so this year marks the 50th anniversary of the march on Washington. The Black Arts Movement, well there was always a Black Arts Movement in America as long as there have been people movement and one’s expression just comes out of one’s experience. Different people operate or present in different ways, so in Chicago, the OBAC [Organization of Black American Culture] movement, which pulled together many of the people who were named actually, who Amiri Baraka names–Hoyt Fuller, Askia Toure, many of those people were influenced by the OBAC movement in Chicago. Jeff Donaldson and–I mean this was a whole organization of writers, painters, poets and community people, so that all the work that we see downstairs and at the DuSable came out of people in the streets marching, people protesting, the Chicago school boycott, all of those were influenced and impacted on the work that people–writers–were influenced by. So it’s nothing separate, and it’s unfortunate I feel, I’ve really appreciated what has happened with all of this, but I think that it’s a mistake to not understand the significance–the work is just something that you see, but it’s the significance is what has been happening with African American people, probably since Sarah talked about Phillis Wheatley, you know? and whoever was doing some carvings on a plantation at some point.

AS: Thank you. I wanted to also kind of touch back on what–on the question that you asked because I didn’t fully answer it when you talked about the role of art today, and I wanted to be a little bit more specific, and I wanted to be specific because I think that there is something very different going on right now than what was going on during the period of the Black Arts Movement, or the Black Power Movement or the Civil Rights Movement. I think right now, there’s a movement happening, I’m not sure exactly what is, you know, what it’s going to become or what it’s going to be called, but I think that with things like the youth violence here in Chicago and so many children being affected by that, by the injustices that still happen within our system such as what happened with the Trayvon and Zimmerman case, I still think that art has a role in our society, and if not to just shine light and expose those things that we need to be talking about, that we need to be putting action behind, and so that’s what I–that’s the tradition and legacy in which I follow behind and pray that I’m doing it justice. But I definitely think that the arts are another form of fighting oppression.

Audience Member 3: To your point though, do you see like artists embedding themselves, with the exception of yourself, like some rappers or singers or others have written like responses or you know, expressions after the Trayvon Martin case and stuff like that, but do you really see them embedding themselves or injecting themselves into kind of an activist movement that would like stop racial profiling or anything like that or is it just short of that? It’s like, my role as an artist I made this song, I want to inspire the people to go out and fight for this social change…

AS: Right. So I will say that there are two…there are two types of artists. There are some artists who are definitely married to activism as well, so they are not just activists on the page but they are activists who go out, get petitions signed, are at court legislation hearings, are doing those types of things, and then you have the poets who are very comfortable with just, you know, speaking about these things and just letting that be their form of activism. I don’t really have a problem with either, I think to do something is better to do nothing, so I would like to see more and I’m personally–that’s my endeavor here in Chicago, to connect more Chicago artists under a theme of art but also activism where we can begin to have dialogue and engage community and not just be…speak about these things or paint these things or so forth.

Audience Member 4: I was just wondering what poets you look up to today besides Amiri Baraka and Sarah Fabio and people of this generation and older as well?

AS: So that lists goes on. Well, personally Sonia Sanchez is like one of my favorite favorite favorites. I just love Mama Sonia, that’s what I call her, and for many reasons but I guess it’s just her ability to be naked and to be vulnerable and to really reach the heart, you know, like her own heart and then to have that heart shared on the page or when she’s vocalizing. She’s probably at the top of my list. Well, I’m thinking more contemporary artists so I don’t know if you are familiar with a poet, Kim Richardson, but she’s out of North Carolina and she is a friend of mine, actually, also Ebony Golden is another poet friend of mine…there are actually poets here in Chicago who I admire, I don’t know if anybody is familiar with Avery Young, but I respect his art a lot here. I like Natasha Tretheway, Patricia Smith…there’s so many, I don’t know.

Audience Member 5: You noted that the poets like Baraka and Fabio had kind of the Black Power Movement as their inspiration, and I know a lot of rhetoric right now around art tends to lean towards the post-black and the post-racial, and I was wondering how that, those types of discussions impact the work that you do or how you think about the work that you do and the role of art. Maybe you can–you know, is it helpful or is it problematic for you as an activist and an artist? Maybe that’s more in the visual arts world. Just–it was a term that came out of the Studio Museum in Harlem, and I apologize if this is not relevant, that I think it was associated with Thelma Golden and their discussions of young, you know, twenty and thirtysomething black artists today that are really rejecting a lot of the premises of the Black Arts Movement and looking to forge an identity beyond that. And perhaps that’s not part of the discourse around poetry right now…

Audience Member 6: I think that they challenge–they challenge the notion of having to be representative of blackness, so, just to add to your point.

Audience Member 7: I agree with what you said, but when something happens like Trayvon Martin, it sort of puts them in a position of not having a comfort zone, they don’t know how to react. I teach high school English, and I remember before this happened students were like, oh you know it’s a whole different world now, and to some degree yes, but when that happened, they didn’t know which way to run.

AS: So I think a lot of the youth are struggling with identity. I think a lot of the bridges, the generational bridges that were supposed to be crossed were not necessarily crossed so they don’t have a lot of contacts as far as the Black Arts Movement, as far as the Civil Rights Movement, they just think it was something of the past and they don’t see how it relates to them in the present, and because of that they do want to sort of not just be defined as this black anything, but as just whatever they are. But for me, it’s hard for me to divorce myself personally or this whole idea of post-black, because it’s like I’m never not black and i’m never not existing as black in this world regardless of what it may seem and the instances of what Trayvon Martin and…bring these to light for the youth and that’s why they are in this kind of state of I don’t know what to do or what to think or how to act. I think there has to be a lot of education and again, drawing those generational–feeling those generational gaps so that they can understand their context in today’s society and so that they can be more impactful in the world.

Audience Member 2: I agree with you. When the attorney general back in the beginning of the Obama administration said that this was a nation of cowards, and was beaten down for saying it so that he was afraid to open his mouth again until very recently, and he was talking about race, and this is one of the major problems, it’s the elephant in the room in any situation that Americans are in, and the inability to have that discussion and to even–I’m sorry to say–and to even hope at this point that there’s something post-black or post-racial jumps over some rivers that we’ve not yet crossed. It is a tragedy that many young African Americans and old ones like myself, but not me, but my age, have not been able to deal with their African-ness, and until America is able to deal with that, we’re going to continually have very serious problems. The tragedy of young black men shooting each other and killing each other has to do with black people hating themselves and growing up in an America that hates them. And it’s not–when I think of young black men killing each other, I know that they’re just evidencing what black people are still doing to ourselves, and I think that, well…we all need to understand that it is a part of the issue. We’re not post-racial and I would never want to be post-black. It has taken me so many years to get to being black and to appreciating it, that I will not go by it.

AS: Yes.

Audience Member 8: Since it’s coming my way, respect to elders. I do want to say one thing though, that i’m hearing similar things to the Don Lemon rhetoric, and that is that historical illiteracy is not unique to young black New Yorkers like myself, it’s not unique to black people, it’s not a black problem, that white people kill each other also, that identity crisis happen across the nation and it’s not just a black thing. To bring up, or to go back to one of the points that you made about being able to divorce yourself from certain roles in your society, I’m interested in your commentary about gender and how one can be born into a certain gender but they identify as something else to the world, and how does that–or what role does that, if any, play in your poetry in today where we have that opportunity to do so more openly, and do you notice any other poets who do the same thing? Is that clear?

AS: So gender roles. Gender roles play an interesting…play out interestingly in my art. I’ve been accused of having homoerotic tendencies in my art such as a poem I did called “Oxygen” is a metaphor for freedom, and in that I personify oxygen or freedom as a woman and so the thing that I’m saying about her or about freedom in general was taken as like a homoerotic type of thing. But I think that as far as gender is concerned, I tend to relate to things as a woman so I tend to give it a sort of woman-like features because that’s what’s real to me and authentic to me. I do know of other poets who are being authentic to themselves as far as when it comes to gender roles or sexuality or many of those things I mentioned–a friend of mine, Ebony Noelle Golden, another friend of mine, Alexis Gumbs out of North Carolina as well, they’re heavily involved in a movement called In Our People’s Hands where they are just authentic, and I believe that’s a lot about what the Black Arts Movement was about as well, being authentic to who you are and to identity, and so I think that still definitely plays a role today. I personally deal with things that are relevant to me and I don’t necessarily try to tackle things that are not as close to home for me personally, because I want to do it justice. What we didn’t hear is that St. Claire Bourne was very instrumental and wanting to, at the time when he began doing film, the director-producer of In Motion: Amiri Baraka, he was bombarded with all of these outsider images of his subculture. And what he wanted to do and why he started his production company is to present the–present from an insider’s type of view, point of view. And so I think that it’s important that we shift our point of view to the things that are relevant to us and by exposing that we also expose the sort of humanity of all of us.

Audience Member 9: Yeah just going off of that, I mean Baraka is obviously a controversial figure, you know, he’s accused of being misogynistic, antisemitic, homophobic, and I just wonder how that complicates or problematizes his image, particularly in conjunction or in juxtaposition with Fabio who’s you know, so clearly a kind of feminist poet. Do you have any thoughts on that?

AS: I think that Baraka is a poet–what I really loved about both films is I loved how it–the films entered the lives of the poets as political, but as very much human, just like a mother I’m changing the diaper and a father I’m talking about not wanting my daughter to have a dog. It entered them as very you know, human people, and people who experience a transition in their lives and a transformation, like Baraka, didn’t just arrive at the place but they talked about how he was in Cuba and they asked him, OK so what is this beautiful thing that is not functional, you know, arts for arts sake, and so it shows the transition. I think he’s a poet that has grown as a person and a political figure. I feel like Sarah Fabio could have been a feminist but I’m not so anxious to say that, and the reason why is because I’m accused a lot of times of being a feminist, and I say accused just because that’s, you know, it’s not necessarily what I consider myself, but I do consider myself very much involved and concerned with things that relate to women, and that’s partly because that’s what I am. I also consider myself concerned with things that relate to children, so it’s a part of me that relates to any people, or any people who are sort of oppressed or don’t have a voice or are looking for–I want to give them voice, and so…so that’s how I’m going to answer that question.