Answering civil rights advocate James Baldwin’s call to witness, Valerie Mason-John’s I Am Still Your Negro: An Homage to James Baldwin, is an uncompromising account of the historic and ongoing trauma of the slave trade, gender disparity, homocentric norms, and our longstanding disregard for the environment. Among the Baldwin quotes in I Am Still Your Negro, there is one in particular that speaks to the urgency and force of language used by Mason-John in this wide-ranging work. Says Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” (10) Says Mason-John, attesting that the act of witness is still necessary all these years after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, “My father who art in the universe / What on earth is your name / Will you ever come …” (4)
Mason-John, who grew up in the UK, spent her early years as a spoken word poet and social activist. That experience, described in an opening section entitled “ID,” and in the writer’s “Introduction,” informs the style of many of the poems in this book—the language is direct and visceral, and moves to the incantatory beat of slam. The book itself is organized into seven sections—#Undocumented, #ThisIsAfricanDiaspora, #MeToo, #IfMyPlantsCouldSpeak, #Swag, #RaveScene, #Intersectionality—each of which begins with a prose piece in the voice of Yaata, the Supreme Being of the Kono people of Sierra Leone, whom Mason-John looks to for wisdom and guidance. The book closes with Yaata’s Epilogue.
In #Undocumented, the first section, Mason-John uses the familiar children’s rhyme “Sticks and Stones” to convey the disturbing experience of a black child living with a white family in the UK of the 1960s. She writes: “… When there was blood on the kerbstone / My white mother tried to protect me. / Sticks and stones did break my bones / But she still told me never to moan.” (5) A note following this poem tells the reader that Black families in the UK were not permitted to adopt or foster Black children during the 1960s—a practice that echoes the experience of Indigenous and Métis children and families in Canada. In #ThisIsAfricanDiaspora, the poem “This is Africa” alternates between celebratory stanzas that speak to the diversity and strength of Africa, and stanzas that condemn the ongoing rape of the continent and the debasement of its peoples. In celebration, she writes: “… Orating dialects of over / 3,000 overtures / I am language literate / Language articulate / Laughing, drumming, dancing / A cappella voices telling my story …,” in condemnation, she writes: “… Pillaged from my villages / Chipped from my ancestral line / Chained to my sisters and brothers / Cattled and sardined / As we journeyed the Middle Passage / Dead and alive / Refashioned to fit into the colonizers’ narcissistic mould …”. (17, 18) The book concludes with Yaata urging all her children to strive for reconciliation: “… Yaata harkens to the cries of all suffering. Those who have been slaves, and those who have enslaved. I am the mother of all beings. …” (95) This juxtaposition of strength to oppression is the unifying thread that weaves through Mason-John’s work.
As a Queer Black woman, Mason-John brings an intersectional perspective to the page. Her words, propulsive and hot, narrate the price that trauma exacts from those who carry its burden. It’s hard but necessary work—the call to witness. For as Baldwin said: “You have to decide who you are and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you.” (95) It’s equally hard but necessary to read —widely—so as to acknowledge these truths.
Valerie Mason-John is the author of several works, including Borrowed Body: A Novel, and Brown Girl in the Ring. An anthology, The Great Black North: Contemporary African Canadian Poetry, which she edited with Kevan Anthony Cameron, won the 2014 Robert Kroetsch Award for Poetry. She lives in Vancouver, where she teaches conflict transformation, leadership and mindfulness.
I Am Still Your Negro: An Homage to James Baldwin
by Valerie Mason-John
University of Alberta Press, 2020, 120 p.p., $19.99
Jody Baltessen is a Winnipeg poet, writer and long-time archivist. Her work has appeared in Prairie Fire and The New Quarterly.