dialogue across time: baldwin talks w/ danticat, freire, kincaid & others

exclusive feature
Brian Katz
{Minneapolis, MN}
The Liberator Magazine 4.2 #10


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So much has been written about formal schooling.

Leslie Silko writes, “There are a great many parallels between Pueblo experiences and those of African and Caribbean peoples-one is that we have all had the conqueror's language imposed on us. But our experience with English has been somewhat different in that the Bureau of Indian Affairs schools were not interested in teaching us the canon of Western classics. For instance, we never heard of Shakespeare. We were given Dick and Jane, and I can remember reading that the robins were heading south for the winter. It took me a long time to figure out what s going on. I worried for quite a while about our robins in Laguna because they didn't leave in the winter, until I finally realized that all the big textbook companies are up in Boston and their robins do go south in the winter. But in a way, this dreadful formal education freed us by encouraging us to maintain our narratives. What ever literature we were exposed to at school (which was damn little), at home the storytelling, the special regard for telling and bringing together through the telling was going on constantly.”

Andrea Levy writes, “They didn't sit us in front of the fire and tell long tales of life in Jamaica - of palm trees and yams and playing by rivers. There was no 'oral tradition' in our family. Most of my childhood questions to them were answered with, 'That was a long time ago,' or 'what you want to now about that for?' And if Mum ever let something slip - ' You know your dad lived in a big house,' - then I was told with a wagging finger not to go babbling it about to my friend, not to repeat it to anyone…We had to write essays telling the facts - how the slaves were captured then transported from Africa to the New World. We drew diagrams of how the triangular trade in slaves worked, like we drew diagrams of sheep farming in Australia. I hated those lessons.”

And Leslie Silko writes, “Maybe the newcomers need another five hundred or even a thousand years to learn how to live with the earth here, but when the water has run out, their time will have run out too. Who will be left? Only a few remember how the desert nourishes her children who live with her. When they look at photographs of Los Angeles or Las Vegas, they will be amazed that the strangers lasted as long as they did.”

Jamaica Kincaid writes, “What should a human being know?”

Patrick Chamoiseau writes, “Big Bellybutton…he had to be working his hands: he'd scrape at his desk, scratch his feet, rub his nose, twist onto one buttock, then the other, as though his constrained body required a swarm of tactile sensations to participate in the world. He loved to fiddle with chalk, slates, pens, and was constantly flipping notebooks open and closed. He was a little guy with blue-black skin, sharp eyes, hair scorched rusty-red and frazzled by the sun, a body that was already tough and muscular…[I] could see the energy in Big Bellybutton's hands…And above all, [I] saw that Big Bellybutton hadn't lost this ability to smile, which showed his benchmate (who was touched to the heart) how secure he was in the core of his being.”

Gloria Anzuldúa writes, “I will not be shamed again/Nor will I shame myself…The struggle has always been inner, and is played out in the outer terrains. Awareness of our situation must come before inner changes, which in turn come before changes in society. Noting happens in the “real” world unless it first happens in the images in our heads.”

Simone Schwarz-Bart writes, “Tac-Tac…Didn't open his lips to anyone, hadn't time he said…taking off with his huge bamboo, eyes shut, veins standing out on his neck, it was Tac-Tac starting to speak, according to him, all the languages on earth. And he blew with his whole body, in fits and starts…which traveled straight through the vault of the forest and into our bosoms, in shudders, in sobs, in love.”

And James Baldwin writes, "If I am not what I've been told I am, then it means that you're not what you thought you were either...It means that well-meaning white liberals place themselves in great danger when they try to deal with Negroes as though they were missionaries. It means, in brief, that a great price is demanded...a price is demanded to liberate all those white children-some of them near forty-who have never grown up, and who never will grow up, because they have no sense of their identity...If I were a teacher...and I was dealing with Negro children, who were in my care only a few hours every day...I would suggest to him that the popular culture - as represented, for example, on television and in comic books and in movies...that the press they read is not as free as it says it is-and he they can do something about that, too. I would try to make them know that just as American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it, so is the world larger, more daring, more beautiful and more terrible, but principally larger...I would suggest to him that he is living, at the moment, in an enormous province. America is not the world and if America is going to become a nation, she must find a way - and this child must help her to find a way to use the tremendous potential and tremendous energy which this child represents. If this country does not find a way to use that energy, it will be destroyed by that energy."

Jamaica Kincaid writes, “[The teacher] had got close enough so that her eyes caught a glimpse of what I had done to my textbook. The glimpse soon led to closer inspection. It was bad enough that I had defaced my schoolbook by writing in it. That I should write under the picture of Columbus “The Great Man Can No Longer Just Get Up and Go” was just too much. I had gone too far this time, defaming one oft the great men in history, Christopher Columbus, discoverer of my island that we my home. And now look at me. I was not even hanging my heed in remorse.”

Anna Deveare-Smith writes, “If you say a word enough, it becomes you.”

Paulo Freire writes, Men and women rarely admit their fea4r of freedom openly, however, tending rather to camouflage it-sometimes unconsciously-by presenting themselves as defenders of freedom. They give their doubts and misgivings an air of profound sobriety, as befitting custodians of freedom. But they confuse freedom with maintenance of the status quo; so that if conscientizacao threatens to place that status quo in question, it thereby seems to constitute a threat to freedom itself.”

Simone Schwarz-Bart writes, “Amboise playing his drum, as if all he's ever seen or heard, everything he knew from today and yesterday was at the tips of his outstretched fingers.”

Gianni Rodari writes, “I threw myself into reading books written in German, with the passion, fury, and desire that are a hundred times more fruitful for young people than a hundred years of school...Perhaps it was because of this that I was not a boring teacher. I told the children stories without the least reference to reality or to good common sense. And most of these were ones that I invented by making use of the 'techniques' that [Andre] Breton had promoted and at the same time deprecated.”

Sherman Alexie writes, “I picked up a basketball for the first time and made my first shot. No. I missed my first shot, missed the basket completely, and the ball landed in the dirt and sawdust, sat there just like I had sat there only minutes before…But it felt good, that ball in my hands, all those possibilities and angles. It was mathematics, geometry. It was beautiful…At that same moment, my cousin Steven Ford sniffed rubber cement from a paper bag and leaned back on the merry-go-round. His ears rang, his mouth was dry, and everyone seemed so far away…But it felt good, that buzz in his head, all those colors and noises. It was chemistry, biology. It was beautiful…Oh, do you remember those sweet, almost innocent choices that the Indian boys were forced to make?”

Fredrick Nietzsche writes, “Any desire to experience something for himself and to sense how his own experiences grow inside him into an integrated an organic system is numbed and, as it were, intoxicated by the illusory promise that in the span of a few short years it will be possible to collect in himself the highest and most remarkable experiences of older ages, especially the greatest of these. It is exactly the same insane method that drives our young painters into the art museums and galleries instead of into the workshop of a master, and above all into the singular workshop of the singular master…as if life itself were not a craft that has constantly to be learned from the ground up and relentlessly practiced if it is supposed to produce anything but bunglers and babblers!”

Lorraine Hansberry writes, “Mama, you don't understand. It's all a matter of ideas, and God is just one idea I don't accept. It's not important. I am not going out and be immoral or commit cries because I don't believe in God. I don't even think about it. It's just that I get tired of Him getting credit for all the things the human race achieves through its own stubborn effort. There simply is no blasted God-there is only man and it is he who makes miracles!' (MAMA absorbs this speech, studies her daughter and rises slowly and crosses to BENEATHA and slaps her powerfully across the face. After, there is only silence and the daughter drops her eyes from her mother's face, and MAMA is very tall before her) Now-you say after me, in my mother's house there is still God. (there is a long pause and BENEATHA stares at the floor wordlessly. MAMA repeats the phrase with precision and cool emotion) In my mother's house there is still God.”

Leslie Silko writes, “The ancient Pueblo people sought a communal truth, not an absolute truth. For them this truth lived somewhere with the web of differing versions, disputes over minor points, and outright contradictions tangling with old feuds and village rivalries…There is no high mesa edge or mountain peak where one can stand and not immediately be part of all that surrounds.”

Simone Schwarz-Bart writes, "She entered the circle first, lifting up her dress generously on either side as if to indicate that she opened her womb and her bosom before the company. All round and full, she made one think of a breadfruit covered in curls and when she started to dance she was a breadfruit that's knocked off the tree with a pole and rolls right down the hill, along paths and tracks, falling rising with such energy she made us forget the ground beneath her feet was really flat.”

Giannni Rodari writes, “I am concerned with perceiving how any word chosen by chance can function as a magical word to exhume fields of memory that have rested under the dust of time.”

Sherman Alexie writes, “All of the Indians must have tragic features: tragic noses, eyes, and arms. Their hands and fingers must be tragic when they reach for tragic food. The hero must be a half-breed, half white and half Indian, preferably from a horse culture. He should often weep alone…If the hero is an Indian woman, she is beautiful. She must be slender and in love with a white man. But if she loves an Indian man then he must be a half-breed, preferably from a horse culture…She should be compared to nature: brown hills, mountains, fertile valleys, dewy grass, wind, and clear water….Indians must see visions. White people can have the same visions if they are in love with Indians. If a white person loves an Indian then the white person is Indian by proximity. White people must carry an Indian deep inside themselves. Those interior Indians are half-breed and obviously from horse cultures…In the Great American Indian novel, when it is finally written, all of the white people will be Indians and all of the Indians will be ghosts.”

Jamaica Kincaid writes, “On the wall behind the wooden table and chair was a map; at the top of the map were the words, ‘THE BRITISH EMPIRE.’ These were the first words I learned to read…My mother died the moment I was born…Where is my father? What good could an education do for someone like me? What could be seen in my eyes?”

Edwidge Danticat writes, “I once heard an elder say that the dead who have not use for their words leave them as part of their children's inheritance. Proverbs, teeth suckings, obscenities, even grunts and moans once inserted in special places during conversion, all are passed to the next her…I hear the weight of the river all the time…It is perhaps the great discomfort of those trying to slice the world to discover that we have voices sealed inside our heads, voices that with each passing day, grow even louder than the clamor of the world outside.”

Chinua Achebe writes, “James Baldwin's bafflement, childlike-which does not mean simpleminded but deeply profound and saintly -comes across again and again an nowhere better perhaps than in his essay 'Fifth Avenue, Uptown.' 'Negroes want to be treated like men: a perfectly straightforward statement containing only seven words. People who have mastered Kant, Hegel, Shakespeare, Marx, Freud, and the Bible find this statement utterly impenetrable.'”

Ishmael Reed writes, “Those who say that the standard of an American common culture should be European are in fact separatists. And few of them know the European culture which they champion, for anybody who has traveled to Europe will discover that there is no monolithic European culture. Although historians like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., discourage the learning of African Amerindian cultures, it is quite possible that Americans can benefit from their examples…Before [Europeans'] arrival, the Pueblo people, according to Leslie Silko in her book Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit…”

Leslie Silko writes, “I had a tremendous sense of the presence of the oldest spirit beings right there in Europe, and that lost of Europeans, even the ones that don't know it, are still part of that. As hard as Christianity tried to wipe it out, and tried to break that connection between the Europeans and the earth, and the plants and the animals-even though they've been broken from it longer than the indigenous people of the Americas or Africa-that connection won't break completely. That experience was so strong that I wanted to acknowledge it a little.”

Gianni Rodari writes, “I hope that this small book can be useful for all those people who believe it is necessary for the imagination to have a place in education; for all those who trust in the creativity of children; and for all those who know the liberating value of the word. 'Every possible use of words should be made available to every single person' -- this seems to me to be a good motto with a democratic sound. Not because everyone should be an artist but because no one should be a slave.”

And Langston Hughes writes, “This is my theme for English B.”

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... Cultivare, cultiva terra, arable land, colere, colō; worship, protect, cultivate. As a regular gift to our $2400+/biennium members, Live From Planet Earth extends a special unlimited invitation to our family's homestead/farm/estate in Jamaica. Sign-up by clicking your membership contribution amount below. Live From Planet Earth is a hands-on, cooperative meditation — on self-sustaining, tropical, organic human being and development — rooting and producing through your generous, reparative, faithful contributions. Please support by helping us fill this measure little by little, slowly but surely: Annual ($36), ($2400), ($6000); Monthly ($3), ($5), ($10), ($25), ($30), ($40), ($60), ($70), ($80), ($90), ($130), ($200), ($500), ($1000).