The Next Chapter

Valerie Mason-John's I Am Still Your Negro uses social justice poetry to explore why society hasn't changed

The Vancouver poet and educator spoke with Shelagh Rogers about how James Baldwin inspired her latest poetry collection.
Valerie Mason-John is an author and public speaker. (The University of Alberta Press, Juan Luis Rod)

This segment originally aired on Nov. 14, 2020.

In 2016, the documentary I Am Not Your Negro was released in theaters. The doc was based on an unfinished 1979 manuscript by James Baldwin called Remember the House, which was to be the story of America through the lens of the lives of three murdered friends.

The film documentary reflected on issues of anti-Black racism and Black history, all central to James Baldwin's writing and his very being. 

Poet and public speaker Valerie Mason-John watched that documentary and it helped inspire her latest book, I Am Still Your Negro: An Homage to James Baldwin. Mason-John's writing speaks truth about the scars and trauma of slavery, sexism and colonization.

The Vancouver-based Mason-John spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing I Am Still Your Negro.

What's changed?

"I can remember when everybody was talking about James Baldwin's documentary I Am Not Your Negro. I can remember watching it and thinking that things are still happening and that nothing has changed. This documentary and his writings could have been written today.

I can remember when everybody was talking about James Baldwin's documentary I Am Not Your Negro.

"Then I watched If Beale Street Could Talk. Again, I thought, 'What's new? What's different?' So it was a response to both of those films."

The difference

"The fact that we are still killed by the police is systemic racism. Sometimes people say, 'Well, police kill everybody. It's not just Black people and it's not just Indigenous people.' And I say, 'Yes, but the difference is we're killed because we're Black and because we're Indigenous — because they're scared, they're threatened.'

The fact that we are still killed by the police is systemic racism.

"That's the difference. When the police kill a white person, they might think they're under threat, but it's not because they're white."

A mixed-race mind

"I was brought up by white people. When I was a lot younger, in my 20s, I would meet another Black person and I would know in 15 minutes that they were raised by white people. There was a particular way that we looked at the world. We looked at the world through a completely different lens. 

My mind had definitely been conditioned in a white way.​​​​​

"Black people would know but they wouldn't say, 'Oh, you were brought up by white people.' They would just say, 'You're white-minded, you're a 'coconut' —  Black outside, white inside.

"That was because we had taken on some of those values of white people. We had taken on internalized racism. Once upon a time, I would have said, 'I don't listen to reggae because it's too aggressive. It's too violent.' Once upon a time, I felt far more comfortable in a white space and completely uncomfortable in a Black-only space. My mind had definitely been conditioned in a white way."

Social justice poetry

"The reason why I called it social justice poetry is because I wanted people to know instantly what they were picking up. We know that poetry is often very beautiful. In the book, I use sonnets and villanelles. 

I didn't want it to be categorized into 'protest poetry' because often we as Black writers have been called 'protest poets'.

"It's social justice because I'm talking about the everyday issues of Black people, of women, of LGBTQ people. I didn't want it to be categorized into 'protest poetry' because often we as Black writers have been called 'protest poets.' 

"I didn't want it to be categorized into that. This is social justice poetry. We're talking about the social issues of today."

Valerie Mason-John's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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