After the publication of my first book with Black Sparrow Press, publisher John Martin sent me a letter from a famous Objectivist poet who lauded my work and offered his literary support. However, he asked Martin if I were a prostitute. Because, if I were, then the work presented in Mad Dog Black Lady was truly amazing. Well—Martin had warned me that it would happen. Given my bodacious debut, slinging the raunchy vocab of street life, what did I expect? At the time, I was impervious and made of steel. To be stereotyped, of course, that went with the All-American racist territory—I reasoned; however, given my ego, I had hoped that my best readers would look beyond urban jungle stereotypes to embrace a new Black writer—while a working girl in the less interesting sense of the phrase—to find the poet with her intellect of gold underneath. Nearly a generation had passed, when I got up courage to contact that very same poet and engage him in a discussion on race. He was rather liberal, and encounters with liberal intellectuals who did not want to discuss race were rare. My effort was an extension of a dialogue I felt he had already begun, if obliquely, in his own work. My letter was frank, sincere, and, I had hoped, challenging. Perhaps I had presented too much of a challenge. His response was—and he repeated himself when I tried again 3-4 years later—“I understand you, but I don’t have the problem.”
Reflecting on those words summons up broken friendships and rocky kinships. It wasn’t unusual then (and it’s not unusual now) to have some of my best moments marred by racist encounters overlooked or unseen by others as if they didn’t happen. Such moments often inspired arguments with my first husband, an activist and civil rights worker, as if his whiteness and my blackness had come into conflict. Many of the scenes we made in the 60s were predominantly white. Often, I was the only thing black in the room. Insults, when they came, were often tacit—all in a searing look or tone of voice, and directed only at me. I quickly learned that if I erupted into curses or threatened violence, I would be the one who looked paranoid or racist. That, insofar as anyone else could see or hear, nothing had happened—thus the insult was compounded, because those to whom I voiced my complaints didn’t have the problem and did not understand what had made me so angry.
On a recent visit to Oxford, Mississippi, I went to lunch with a two-man camera crew at a local hot spot, legendary for its authentic Southern cuisine. The occasion was a blues festival at which I was presenting my blues-toned poetry. The joint was crowded. My associates were young white filmmakers well into their 30s, one from California, the other from France. We were seated in a booth with old-fashioned red leather seats. They sat together, backs toward the door, and girl watched. I sat across from them, facing the entrance, and examined a menu exotic to my tastes. We placed our orders and shared toasts. As we began to enjoy our drinks, a handsome young white couple, also in their 30s, brushed by our table. I happened to look up and catch that young man’s eyes. They were blackened with a virulent hatred that challenged my presence and would have lynched me on the spot, were the adage true. Thunderstruck, I turned to my companions.
“Did you see that!?,” I asked, upset.
They grinned and giggled boyishly. I had interrupted them mid ogle, their eyes were fastened on the lady’s bottom and then her breasts as the couple was seated two tables over.
“Uh-oh, Wanda, what are you talking about? Huh?”
Suddenly, I heard an old poet’s words and realized it didn’t happen to them. It wasn’t their problem. What had just happened had happened to me. That look of pure-dee race hatred, centuries deep, had been reserved specifically for me and my kind. My companions might have understood, had I taken the time to explain, assuming I could find my tongue. Had I done so, I would have probably spoiled our lunch and our good time in the process.
“Never mind,” I said. “It’s nothing.”
That kind of nothing—or cultural clash—had long become the stuff of my writings. I have made an art of taking those painful moments and transforming them into essays, poems and stories. When teaching students of color, I preach the transformation of that base hatred into art as a writer. Still, I would prefer my life without it; yet, I often wonder what the world would be like if there were no racism, no radical differences in sex preference, or abilities to think—if we all snake-danced to the same conga drum, spoke the same patois and believed in Damballa. What in hell would I write about then?
Poet and writer Wanda Coleman was a blatantly humanist artist who won much critical acclaim for her unusually prescient and often innovative work, but who struggled to make a living from her craft. In discussing “my life in poetry,” More magazine, April 2005, Camille Paglia said of Coleman: “She’s not...