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Language and Personal Narrative in Revolutionary Poetry

Book Review:
I Am Still Your Negro by Valerie Mason-John


I Am Still Your Negro: An Homage to James Baldwin
by Valerie Mason-John
University of Alberta Press, 2020


Dr. Valerie Mason-John, also known as Vimalasara in Buddhist Dharma communities and Queenie in slam poetry and theatre circles, is a world-renowned playwright, author, and beloved Buddhist teacher who co-founded the Eight Step Recovery Program. In their recently published collection of poetry, I Am Still Your Negro, Mason-John pays homage to James Baldwin through seven sections of poetic vignettes spanning nearly 100 pages. The topics range from slavery and colonization to global politics and historical realities, addressing the racialized and gendered intersections of African identity, diaspora, and ancestry.

Mason-John’s opening section sets the stage, outlining the author’s intellectual history and accomplishments while simultaneously discarding the story of self we are expected to cultivate. As they explain in the introduction to this poetry collection, “all of that is the bypassing story. It’s what kept me alive.” In their Dharma teachings, Mason-John often draws a distinction between the stories we are trained to tell about ourselves, and the more real and raw life experiences and lived truths that lie beneath them. I recall sitting in meditation halls while they directed participants to form pairs and tell our “story”—however we interpreted this. By asking us to share continuously without interruptions or cross talk, Mason-John allowed us to speak freely on any prompted part of our story until the narrative we were used to telling dissolved—melting away to reveal the parts of ourselves we are frightened to name. Mason-John explains the power of breaking this narrative: “to regain my sanity and my emotional health, I had to come face to face with the stories many of us push down for years, and carry around as toxic baggage every time we are activated.” By integrating this approach to guided exercises with their poetry and sharing their history of abuse at the hands of Whiteness, Mason-John allows readers to approach the poetry therein with grace, compassion, and mutuality.

Dr. Valerie Mason-John. Photo by Henrik Meyer

Mason-John is inspired by the literary movement of Negritude, birthed and stewarded by such scholars as Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, and W.E.B. DuBois. When writing, “I am a taboo within a taboo,” in the introduction to this book of poetry, the author alludes to the inseparability of race, gender, and sexuality in the bodies of Black people assigned female at birth. This lens is central to the themes that weave this book together, never once forgetting that to be Black, queer, and forcibly assigned as female is to walk through each phase of life differently and uniquely.

In this collection, nearly all of the seven sections begin with a message from a deity Mason-John names Yaata, a representation of Earth and nature. Yaata is a historian, offering, first, the story of the Hungry Ghosts—white colonizers that arrived on her lands and destroyed them, enslaving her people, and returning again and again to pillage her resources. The image of the Hungry Ghosts likely serves as a double entendre, linking the pillaging of White colonizers to the Hungry Ghost realm in Buddhist cosmology—beings with tiny mouths incapable of satisfying the hunger of their excessively large stomachs. This connection cannot be understated as Mason-John masterfully links histories of White desires, exploitation, and oppression with spiritual hungers that are never satiated.

Yaata is also an observer, following her kin to new lands to witness their strategies for survival. She offers advice on her observations, which are shared as raps and prophecies. While the narrative of Yaata provides a unifying thread for the entire collection, each section stands distinct, marked by unique hashtagged themes that readers move through in a particular order: #Undocumented, #ThisIsAfricanDiaspora, #MeToo, #IfMyPlantsCouldSpeak, #Swag, #RaveScene, and #Intersectionality.

In 1968, Baldwin appeared on The Dick Cavett Show and stated, “I am not your nigger.” Since, there have been many discussions about the implications of changing “nigger” to “negro” in the the oft-quoted Baldwin documentary released in 2016. The censoring of Baldwin’s language functions as tone-policing by eschewing “nigger” in favor of “negro” in order to placate, win-over, or comfort white viewers and readers. This is both concerning and critical as Black communities have always and already reckoned with the “hard R” use of “nigger,” often hurdled at us against our will as an expression of power. In contrast, dominant culture seems to prefer sweeping this word under the rug, altering texts and quotes in an attempt to erase its existence. Baldwin’s use of the term “nigger” and not “negro” matters because it points to how he believed Black folks are seen within the White psyche, still as niggers. Not as Negros, or Black people, or even African-Americans. That is to say, despite the abolition of slavery and the evolution of language, the sentiment remains the same, the oppression persists, and the conditions of this country continue to demand dismantling. Mason-John alludes to the link between the continued need for abolition and Baldwin’s sentiment from over a half-century ago in her epigraph, noting that many things have not changed. She writes:

I am still your negro
AND
I am not your negro

In the curated selection of excerpts to follow, Mason-John reminds us why Baldwin’s message remains relevant today. In other words, why am I still your negro? The author answers this by stating that “reparations and apologies have not been given to us. Colonizers are still enslaving Black people.” Be this through prisons, carceral school environments, substandard employment, or neo-colonial practices such as resource extraction and military invasions deployed abroad, Black people across the diaspora continue to suffer at the hands of White colonizers. In other words, while I can refuse to be your negro, the systems that make me one still persist, remain, and run rampant. This is why we continue to demand for abolition.

Mason-John’s poetry sheds light on these harsh realities through personal and vulnerable narratives. Their writing also offers hope for our futures by reminding readers of our collective reservoir of power, resilience, and creativity. With these tools in our hands and our ancestors beside us, we may still be negros, but we ain’t silent about it no more.


Excerpt from I Am Still Your Negro

I Am Still Your Negro

I was your Negro
Captured and sold
I am still your negro
Arrested and killed

You made me a slave
You made me homeless
You made me an immigrant
You made me illegal

I was your Negro
Captured and sold
I am still your negro
Arrested and killed

You made me a shooter
You made me a mugger
You made me a hustler
You made me a pimp

I was your Negro
Captured and sold
I am still your negro
Arrested and killed

You made me a single baby mother
You made me a crack baby
You made me fatherless
You made me a drop-out

I was your Negro
Captured and sold
I am still your negro
Arrested and killed

You made me an entertainer
You made me an athlete
You made me a writer
You made me a caretaker

I was your Negro
Captured and sold
I am still your negro
Arrested and killed

You made me paranoid
You made me weapon
You made me predator
You made me intimidator

I was your Negro
Captured and sold
I am still your negro
Arrested and killed

You made America Great Again
You made America White Again
You made me a Nigger Again
You made me Hate Again

I was your Negro
Captured and sold
I am still your negro
Arrested and killed

A Wake

They howl a song
of death.

Fists thumping heads
With impotence and rage
As they swoop over the coffin
Shrouding the body.

Their child
Dead.

Next of kin take their turn
Furrowed with disbelief
Overwhelmed with grief
Two weeks of wailing.

Their sibling
Dead.

Friends have traversed
A long paranoid path
To pay their last respects
Gifts for the grave.

Their friend
Dead.

And now
It’s time to wail
Again the song of death
As dust and soil
Shroud this man.

The final epitaph
Another Black man
Dead.

Yaata’s Prophecy

My progeny have circled life and death. If you listen carefully, you will hear their branches preaching a secret wisdom, see their leaves performing a sacred dance, my birds singing out the truth, my animals roaming in the jungle, my minerals nourishing the earth you live on.

Respect my wealth, my minerals, my earth, my animals and you will bring good fortune to you and your family. Let the ghosts of your past die. No need to slay each other anymore; no need to take your own life. Yaata is everywhere around you.

Breathe again, and live without guns, knives and drugs. Live life, until the body decays, wizens, expires, and bears fruit again in Mother Earth. And you will no longer be victims of your fettered past.

Abolish the labels: Half-Breed, Mulatto, Quadroon, Octoroon. These racist identities have only referred to the mingling of African and white European blood. And loosen your attachments to the label Black. In my continent, you are defined by your character and tribe. You became a colour when you stepped into the colonizers’ continents. You are not a commodity; you are the soul and pulse of Mother Earth. It is not necessarily innate that Black folk can run fast, sing and dance well. You ran through my jungles to save your lives. You sang in the plantation fields to pass on your stories. You danced to release your anger and frustration. These identities are adaptation_a result of the passing of epigenetic trauma. Live these personas, but do not be trapped by them.

You once knew how to be still, drum beats were your rituals, and you lived peacefully among the changes of my seasons. And you can be still and peaceful again. You were proud people who walked the land softly and quietly. You sang and danced in ceremony. This wisdom is still in your d n a , and in the Afro- Diaspora. You can summon all of this up in your whole being. Yaata is your backbone, your spine. Let me hold you up, with grace, courage and strength. Yaata still flows through your body.

You have always been home; wherever your body is, you are home. Let nobody take your home away from you with their brutality. Hatred is an illusion, an unwanted gift of delusion from the Hungry Ghosts. Step out of the ignorant projections, constructs and concepts and reclaim your indestructible magnificent bodies.

Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.

—James Baldwin

Self Portrait 1

THE COLOUR OF MY SKIN

The colour of my skin is the root of my ecstasy
The seed of my life
The colour of my skin is one of nature’s glories
The bloom of my life

The colour of my skin is the flower of my legacy
The taboo of my oppressors
The colour of my skin is the greatness of my splendour
The guilt of my kidnappers

The colour of my skin is the celebration of Eden
Black is an omnipotent being
The rejoicing of life
Black the colour of many skins
Is nature’s own deliberation

The colour of my skin is your fear
My strength
Your ignorance
My wisdom
Your blemish
My beauty

Self Portrait 2

CALL ME MY NAME

My Queerness is part of my identity
The love of my chosen families

My Queernesss is nature’s resplendence
The flowering of my ancestry

My Queerness is being out of the closet
The karma of my queer-bashers

My Queerness is the emancipation of all beings
A fact of life

Queer, Zami, Adofuro, Yan Daudu, Ikihindu
Our Pride before Colonizers came

Gender Fluid, Non-Binary, Genderqueer, Gender Variant,
Intersex, Agender, Bigender, Transgender, Pangender, Third
Gender, Gender Neutral, Two-Spirit, Mx, Ze, Hir
Is what we reclaim

My Queerness is your fear
My courage

Your exclusion
My embrace

Your shame
My pride

Your fantasy
My reality

Your perception
My revelation

Now say my Name

Yaata’s Epilogue

My people, everything you have done and continue to do has not allowed you to be free. Your liberation has been stifled by the narratives that have been foisted upon you by the Hungry Ghosts. These stories have become your assaulted truth. Interrupt the Hungry Ghosts’ delusions with your self-love and love for one another. Your mere presence will become potent. It will disturb the underbelly of white domination, and threaten the atrocious views of your Black and Brown bodies.

My blood will always return. I dwell in every continent. I, Yaata, will not sleep peacefully until the ravaging of my earth stops and the necessary reparations are made. Until the colonizers apologize to my people. I will not sleep until my people are no longer executed in the streets, no longer cooped up in institutions, and no longer objects of the white gaze. I, Yaata, will never forget. I will remember and forgive, and love all sentient beings. 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.

Remember, humankind began in Africa with Lucy and every one of you descend from me. Yes! Lucy is the ancestor of every race in the world. And all of you must someday find peace.

You have to decide who you are and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you.

—James Baldwin


shah noor hussein is a writer, visual artist, and scholar focusing on black feminism, art, and teaching. shah is a doctoral student and Cota-Robles Fellow at UC Santa Cruz in the fields of Anthropology, Critical Race Theory & Ethnic Studies. From 2016 – 2017, they were a Writing Fellow at the California Institute of Integral Studies and currently works as an adjunct professor, a freelance writer, and a multimedia artist in Oakland. Their previous experience as an editor includes work for arts organizations, journals, magazines, start-ups, and book publishing companies including Umber Journal and Nothing But The Truth Publishing. shah serves as an Event and Program Coordinator at their spiritual spiritual home, the East Bay Meditation Center located in Okaland, California, which offers radically inclusive dharma practices through Buddhist, multicultural, and secular approaches that focus on social justice.

Dr. Valerie (Vimalasara) Mason-John, M.A (hon.doc) is a public speaker and master trainer in the field of conflict transformation, leadership and mindfulness. Valerie is the award-winning author of 8 books, and the co-author and co-founder of Eight Step Recovery: Using The Buddha’s Teaching to Overcome Addiction. Eight Step Recovery offers an alternative to the 12 step program for addiction. Eight Step meetings are now taking place in the UK, USA, Canada, Mexico, India and Finland. Valerie also is the author of Detox Your Heart: Meditations for Emotional Trauma—a self-help guide on mindfulness of negative emotions. Ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Community, Valerie has been practicing mindfulness for over 30 years and is one of the leading African-descent voices in the field of mindfulness and addiction.


Return to table of contents for Spirituality and Survival: Imaginative Freedoms for Abolition Futures.


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