• Poetic Justice: Interview with Renaissance Writer Robert Bledsoe


    Robert Bledsoe is a poet, playwright and travel writer. His book “Centennial” is currently available on Amazon.

    YLW: When were you introduced to poetry? How did you become a poet?

    RB: Growing up I was entered into the Academic Olympics. I was pushed into that by one of my teachers. I grew up reading. Sometimes I really wonder where I was and where were the other kids in my class. We were taught the same things, sat in the same seat, the same material was presented to us. The point I’m making is that I was a big reader especially with content that dealt with black America. So this love of literature carried with me throughout school. We read poetry, a lot from the Harlem Renaissance Era in elementary school. Poetry and reading was fun. I’d go to the library, sift through books. Looking back, I’m amazed at how much freedom I had to do this. This carried on through college where I learned more about Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen.. I have degrees in journalism, English writing and poetry.  

    YLW: People are always surprised to find out that you grew up in Englewood. Does the stigma placed on certain black communities bother you?

    RB: Let’s put it this way. If I tell people that I’m from the South Side of Chicago, specifically Englewood, people who know those areas, you can see the look in their faces. It’s like “huh?” Those are areas that aren’t necessarily associated with proper speech, college education, firm handshakes, wearing shirts and ties. It’s an area that unfortunately is associated with what people think is black life: drugs, crime, violence, the black malaise. So when people find out that I’m from there, it takes a while for them to process. And it’s not necessarily white people but black people who have this incredulous thinking process.

    YLW: Why do you think people from the same neighborhoods can take very different paths? Why did you take a different path?

    RB: I can’t really say that there were people on the street saying “you’re going to grow up to be a drug dealer”, or “work hard to drop out”. No one was saying that. The parents want their kids to go to school.  Most of my friends growing up are doing well. I don’t know if it was my block or what but most of my friends are upstanding citizens.

    But in the neighborhood in general, everyone knew the family that wasn’t doing anything. It would seem like it was just one or two houses per block. Everyone else was doing what they were supposed to do. But no one could really do anything about that one house. And somehow that one house really has an effect of damaging an entire community.

    It was only when I got older that I realized these super burdens that we have to carry for that one house on the street. I didn’t really learn the significance of that one house until later. Because that one house would come to define whole communities and that’s not fair. The perception is that all these black communities are blighted and failing but that’s not my experience where I grew up.

    YLW: You’re a poet but you’re not a fan of spoken word.

    RB: No. I’m more of a traditionalist. I’m a poetry snob.

    YLW: Why?

    RB: I think the subject matter is limited and there’s too much emphasis on performance. Traditional poetry isn’t always performed, it’s read. [Spoken Word poets] think if you speak in a certain cadence and inflect on a certain word at the end of a sentence and almost sing, that they are saying something. To me poetry is about reaching the heart and reaching the mind and it’s something that’s pleasing and pleasant. It’s not something jarring.

    YLW: Do you think you’re being a little harsh?

    RB: I’m just afraid that many of our youngsters, when they think of poetry, [spoken word] is what they think about. How many of them are really learning about Maya Angelou? I wish I could say it’s an education thing, but it’s not. Many spoken word people are college degreed, I just don’t think it’s poetry. They’re putting on a show. How about we remove the word poetry and call it spoken word creativity?

    YLW: You have an issue with spoken word being called poetry?

    RB: I think it has usurped the word poetry. Poetry is about more than ‘roses are red, violets are blue’. It’s a craft. I don’t want to say that spoken word isn’t creative, I just think there’s too much emphasis on the performance part.

    YLW: At the expense of the writing?

    RB: Right. You’re not focusing on what’s being said. When you see spoken word, you’re using your eyes more than your ears. I went to a Def Poetry Jam audition and I read a poem I wrote when Gwendolyn Brooks died. Here I am reading what I think is a poem, and everyone else is doing spoken word, and I said I’m so out of place here. But definitely, there was some confusion on my part on how poetry was being defined. People liked it but it wasn’t the write venue.

    YLW: You’re a globe hopper. You’re out of the country three or four times a month. Do you think travelers share a kindred spirit?

    RB: It’s a longing. Why does one travel anyway? If you have what you need at home, why travel? For me, the whole travel experience began with me wanting to know what more out there is there. I know that there has to be some place in the world where I feel free to be me. There’s a song about that. Because the constraints that I felt being who I was on the Southside of Chicago or being one of the few blacks at a small school in rural Minnesota, the constraints on me were tight. They were suffocating.

    YLW: How so?

    RB: Because you couldn’t be a black intellectual. That’s an anomaly. It’s like somehow or another, if you are not a black guy who enjoys hip hop, if you don’t play basketball every weekend . . . and don’t get me wrong, I like watching basketball, but I was never good at it. Somehow or another, some things were equated with black and some things were not. As a collective, I think that black people have bought into it. Travel for me was great. It’s a sense of pride for me that people can see we’re not this monolithic community. We don’t all like hip hop, not all hip hop anyway. Some of these images are damaging. We actually speak more than just Ebonics.

    We can’t have our kids continue to aspire to speak bad language. And that’s what they identify as being black. Maybe I’m old school, elitist, but I think the stakes are too high for us to uphold that alone as the black experience.

    YLW: Why do you travel?

    RB: One travels because one is seeking to discover something. One is not getting something. One wanted tea and spices so they set sail. And I set sail to just learn that there was more to life than America, and getting away from the expectations that are laid out for me. It’s nice to just lay on the beach or read a book on the beach, but these things aren’ t considered black if you enjoy this stuff. I don’t know if you read the John Mayer stuff. (Referring to the John Mayer controversy where he mentioned having a hood pass and not dating black women).

    YLW: I did.

    RB: Why are there elements of our community who feel they need to have a pass and if so, why give it out? And why call it a hood pass? We need a discussion. Do we want to hold on to negative images that go out? We have to have a serious discussion on whether or not we want to move forward. I think President Obama’s candidacy put a lot of this front and center. When people think black American,what do we want them to think first?

    We can’t discount the power of imagery and who has access to media. You can be as individual as you want, but if the collective imagery is of the hood then that individual who doesn’t match the image is going to have a problem. When you step out you are combating the images of people who look like you that are thrown across TV sets across the world.

    YLW: When you travel you don’t deal with it?

    RB: Not as much. Here it’s just so entrenched. Take Eminem. How is it that Eminem can be blacker than me? Some black people would see him as blacker than me. Why? Because he doesn’t speak proper English? He could put on a suit and tie and go mainstream. Do I have that option?

    It’s deflating and defeating to talk about because you realize how entrenched it is. If our youngsters do well in English, they’re marginalized. There’s no reason why in 2010 we should still be having these discussions.

    Robert Bledsoe can be reached at embryonic@msn.com.

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    Featured interview with Post Black author, Ytasha L. Womack. Interviewer: Chris Chaney of NV Magazine. Chaney is featured in Post Black as well.

    CC: Post Black has been a term that has bounced around really since Obama has taken office. What does it mean to you?

    YLW: Post Black embraces the diversity within the African American community and includes those communities and lifestyles that don’t fit neatly into the “African American Identity Box.” This box includes a range of assumptions, beliefs and ways of life that all African Americans are assumed to ascribe to. So I start the book off really knocking all the assumptions as to what the book is about before I go deep into the subject matter.

    In the book itself, I take a look at communities in the Gen X and Y world including professionals, artists, entrepreneurs, spiritualist, as well as identity issues involving young women, immigrants, biculturalism, the President, The Talented 10th concept and more.

    CC: Why did you decide to write this book now? What about the America we now live in or the generation that we are a part of made this the time?

    YLW: There have been incredible innovations in the past decade or so. Social constructs have changed and managing or embracing this diversity is forcing many people to reevaluate their beliefs. For some people this is a very fluid process and for others it is extremely difficult. It’s actually a global occurrence. But there wasn’t much of a context for the discussion within our community and I hoped that this book would provide one. I include conversations with family, friends and people of all walks of life. I include anecdotes. I also include some personal experiences because it’s not fair to talk about African American identity and not talk about myself.

    CC: You cover a lot of topics in your book that are all integral to this generation’s identity. What portion of the book do you see as the most significant? What interview responses to what topics were the most surprising?

    YLW: I thought it was very profound that everyone I interviewed either consciously or subconsciously made life decisions based around the notion of African American or black identity. In many cases the careers and schools they chose, the interests they pursued, the decision to be an entrepreneur, their commitments to service, etc were all extensions of defining themselves culturally. All decisions were seen as either a reflection of, responsibility to, or some way of advancing African American culture. Even spiritual pursuits. That’s major. So whether someone was a salsa musician or an African immigrant opening a restaurant, a minister, or a homeowner in a gentrified area, each felt this need to make decisions out of a larger sense of cultural awareness.

    I was surprised when an African immigrant shared that she felt she was at a crossroads of sorts having to defend native born African Americans to other African immigrants and vice versa. She also said that for African Americans to know their history wasn’t enough. We needed to take a DNA test to learn our African lineage. I found myself thinking about that. For the blog, I interviewed an immigrant who was raised in Europe and talked at length about how he was influenced greatly by African American culture and the civil rights struggle before he came to the U.S. I interviewed a woman who was told “you’re from slave” when she was in Europe and introduced herself as African American. In some countries to identify yourself as African American causes confusion. No one knows what you’re talking about. I interviewed black gay men who couldn’t relate to gay identified culture. But I was also surprised to learn that many people who had religious practices and weren’t traditional Christians initially felt very alone in their journey. This surprised me because the number of people who share these beliefs are significant.

    CC: You covered some subjects that are taboo in everyday conversations, specifically religion and sexuality. Why do you think it was necessary to write about how African Americans see themselves in this area?

    YLW: Probably some of the greatest change has taken place within the frameworks of how people view themselves both spiritually and sexually. They are both core subjects for this generation. To ignore them would be to ignore some of the leading changes within the African American social paradigm.

    CC: With regards to religion you go into detail about your personal beliefs and you highlight those who have broken from religions traditional to African Americans to embrace Buddhism, Yoruba, etc. What effect did you want to have on the reader?

    YLW: I’m hoping that the reader sees the diversity in the African American religious experience. There’s a growing interest within America at large in both spirituality, Eastern religions, indigenous spiritual beliefs as well as both New Age and New Thought. African Americans are a central part of that experience. In many cases we provided a number of pioneers in those areas and the beliefs have been in the making for several generations in this country.

    CC: There is a quote in your book where you are writing about misogyny in Hip Hop and this one young female college student you interviewed defends scantily clad women in a video by saying “Wearing no clothes is a part of our culture. People in Africa don’t wear clothes.” Did that really happen? And do you know where that young lady is now so she can be further educated?

    YLW: That’s a true story. I don’t know where she is. But hopefully the conversation gave her something to think about. The video in question was Nelly’s Tip Drill, which caused a protest amongst college women. The young lady couldn’t explain why she liked music and videos with misogynistic themes. Many young women can’t. But she got flustered trying to explain it all and defended it by saying it was a part of her heritage to do so.

    It was appalling to say the least. But the odd thing was she was trying to understand misogyny or sexuality in the context of African American identity. It was an attempt to make some connection between her decisions to listen to sexualized, misogynistic music and her ancestry. Her connections were totally off, inaccurate, and ignorant. But even that decision was an attempt to link her life to some greater sense of African American identity. It goes to show how powerful and misguided notions of black identity can be. She couldn’t just say I like the women in these videos or I like dressing that way and I feel guilty. She had to explain her guilt away by saying it was part of her distant lineage. Britney Spears can wear revealing outfits but I can’t imagine anyone defending her right to do so as a part of her European ancestry.

    CC: You spend time in your book discussing the new black populace and how they identify themselves with African Americans. What you reveal is a definite cultural gap. What do you think it will take to close that gap between Africans, Caribbeans and African Americans?

    YLW: I don’t think the gap is that wide. However, increased social interaction is the key. Frequenting cultural events and meeting people of other cultures so that other cultural groups aren’t viewed as “other” is a necessary step. This is happening in many arenas. In some cases it has happened for years, but in places where it is not [happening], some initiative has to be taken. I also think it’s important that there’s a recognition that being black in America embodies a variety of cultural backgrounds. There should be more dialog and education on that issue. That recognition alone will forge more inclusiveness within groups and organizations who may not realize their limited definition of “black in America” is repelling various segments of the black community.

    CC: When you take on the lofty goal of writing a book about a culture it definitely puts you in a position of being criticized. Immediately, people ask who are you to write this, especially African Americans. So how about you answer that now. What qualifies you to write this book?

    YLW: I quote Robert Kennedy. If not me, who? If not now, when? Well, that applies to any burning idea someone has. And this limited concept of African American identity has disturbed me for some time. The issue of identity kept popping up in my work and life experiences. And I’ve devoted a great deal of time to trying to be me in the midst of many assumptions as to who I should be and how I should operate. I’ve written for numerous publications targeting African Americans. I’ve interviewed a span of black people on a range of interests and issues. And personally, I’ve been involved in a wide spectrum of black life from the arts to business to media. My perspective is a valid one.

    One thing that became very clear as I explored these issues is that the notion of blackness wasn’t created by black people alone. It’s a definition we were boxed into and have been struggling to redefine ever since. Much of this effort to redefine took place in the midst of harsh and extreme resistance. However, with respect to identity, everyone has an invested view into whatever descriptions they use to identify themselves, whether that be racially, ethnically, sex, etc. In changing times, all of these labels come into question. What does it mean to be a man in 2010 is as complex a question as what does it mean to be African American, or Asian American, or bisexual or blonde.

    CC: If there could be one ideal African American identity what components would it have and is there anyone who represents it past or present?

    YLW: There is no ideal black identity . . . and that’s a good thing. At the same time, I do think it’s very important that people know the richness and diversity of culture, history and the role it plays on the world stage and in their own lives. I also think people should have a strong sense of responsibility to both educate and empower people around issues of culture and history. Moreover, cultivating a sense of purpose that includes a respect for humanity and a dedication to social good is important. But I would advise that to anyone.

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