Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Defining Black Consciousness: Mongane Wally Serote’s “What’s in This Black ‘Shit’”

If you've been following, you know I'm enrolled in the low-residency MFA in Poetry program at New England College. Some of you may be curious about the nature of my assignments. So, I've provided an essay from my February packet, a unit on writers of South Africa. This essay analyzes one of the major writers of the South African Black Consciousness movement, Mongane Wally Serote and his poem (it may help to read it before reading the essay), "What's in This Black Shit."

THE APARTHEID government shattered Black resistance movements in the 1960’s by imprisoning many of the African National Congress’ key leaders and by forcing the rest into exile. As political, social, and economic conditions spiraled, the need for new movements and new leadership emerged. Enter Black Consciousness.

Born on the campuses of the ‘Bush’ universities – segregated institutions of higher learning for Bantus, or native Africans – the Black Consciousness movement was inspired by the Black Power movement in the United States and by Pan-Africanist scholars such as Kwame Nkrumah and Frantz Fanon. Among the movement’s goals: to reinterpret the meaning of blackness, to seek the psycho-logical liberation of the black man, to reject White liberalism, and to rewrite the history of South Africa so that Black dignity could be restored.

One of the key tools of Black Consciousness was its cultural component. And one of its master craftsmen was the poet, Mongane Wally Serote, whose poem, “What’s in this Black Shit” from his 1972 debut collection, Yakhal'inkomo exemplifies the Black Consciousness aesthetic.

Before we even enter the poem, Serote challenges the Western reader’s aesthetic values. The title, “What’s in this Black Shit?,” in its vulgarity and profanity, directly confronts the trees-and-flowers aesthetic of European high culture. ‘Black shit’ as a poetic subject is, in itself, a reinterpretive, or revolutionary, act.

Once we enter the poem, the tone is blatantly didactic, another feature of Black Consciousness literature. While Serote does use poetic techniques (which will be examined later) his primary mission is to instruct, that is, to redefine the meaning of Blackness. Thus, his language in the opening lines of the poem is that of definition:

It is not the steaming little rot
In the toilet bucket
It is the upheaval of bowels

But even in his definition, instead of straightforward equivalizing, Serote chooses the form of negation, “It is not the steaming little rot,” which is to emphasize that “What’s in This Black Shit” is not simply about definition, but about re-definition.

And Serote’s redefinition in the remainder of the first stanza is performing a bit of psychotherapy as well. In the opening negation, he describes black shit with “steaming little” – as something dimunitive, which could fit neatly in the toilet bucket. But in his redefinition, he uses the language of something which is much bigger, all-consuming – the wrenching “upheaval of the bowels,” a “bleeding… coming out through the mouth.” He makes it real to the reader, engaging shit with the tactile and savory senses: “rolling in the mouth, feeling its taste.” This black shit is something which must be faced, not something which can be forgotten, or flushed.

With a very instructional direct address, the opening line of the second stanza abandons artifice altogether, continuing the didactic tone common in Black Consciousness:

Now I’m talking about this:

And so here it is that Serote, in a poem about definition, begins redefining his redefinition. After describing black shit in literal terms in the first stanza, Serote uses a less direct method of definition for this second stanza - context:

“Shit” you hear an old woman say,

Here, Serote creates a dramatic scene with “an old woman,” a Black domestic worker. ‘Shit’ becomes a curse, or a swear, and the modifier, Black, is used to identify it as the curse coming from a Black person’s mouth, as opposed to a White person’s mouth. In the social context of this Black woman’s mouth, ‘shit’ is not a flippant curse. Rather, it is the pent-up frustration of one who has lived – who is “old” with “gigantic life experience” but who is nonetheless seen by this society as insignificant – “squeezed in her little match-box,” “a child.” When one considers that in African societies, elders are given the highest respect, the offense becomes compounded.

When the domestic worker is placed in a situation with her employer, then the poem rises to social criticism:

‘Cause the next day she’s right there,
Right there serving tea to the woman
Who’s lying in bed at 10 a.m., sick with wealth

Here Serote is making a commentary on the wealth and comfort of the status quo – the apartheid regime - symbolized by a woman “lying in bed at 10 a.m.” being served tea by a Black servant. Not only is this woman lying in bed while the domestic is busy at working, but the woman is “sick with wealth.” An arresting redefinition, it is an attack on the values of the status quo, who have profitted from Black servitude. And ‘black shit’ is a curse which contains all of this.

After placing Black versus White in the second stanza, Serote begins the third stanza, “This Shit can take the form of action,” which sets the reader up for talk of revolution. But wait, the characters are Serote’s younger sister and his father.

My younger sister under the full weight of my father
And her face colliding with his steel hand.
Cause she spilled the sugar I work so hard for
He says, not feeling satisfied with the damage his hands

This is not the action which we expect at all, but it is, unfortunately, action which is precipitated by the social pressures presented in the second stanza – violence within the Black family. In keeping with the objectives of Black Consciousness, Serote is presenting this mirror – this ugliness – as a means to coming to terms with it and restoring Black dignity.

In the final stanza, Serote brings it all together to define ‘This Black Shit,’ or what Black Consciousness means in the context of 1970’s South Africa:

I’m learning to pronounce this “Shit” well
Since the other day
At the pass office
When I went to get employment,
The officer there endorsed me to Middleburg
So I said hard and with all my might, “Shit!”

Here, the poem becomes personal and more immediate as Serote himself is placed in a situation. Unemployed and going to the pass office, where Serote is applying for a pass to work in a Whites-Only area – which is, in itself, a source of impossible frustration – the government worker endorses him to work in Middleburg, which is in the Eastern Cape, metaphorically (and literally) in the middle of nowhere – most notably, not in the middle of any jobs.

And so, as Serote says it “with all [his] might,” ‘black shit’ becomes the all-consuming of the first stanza, the curse of frustration of the second stanza, and the violence of the third stanza rolled into one. But what makes this the ‘black shit’ of Black Consciousness is the final three lines:

But what’s good, is, I said it in his face,
A thing my father wouldn’t dare do.
That’s what’s in this black Shit.

Black Consciousness is a change from the old generation, whose pent-up frustrations, as his father to his sister, led to Black self-destruction. In this final act of utterance, Serote is directing his angst toward its proper source, to the face of the apartheid regime.

Monday, April 25, 2005

UPCOMING PERFORMANCE: Thursday, April 28, 7:00 p.m.

THIS THURSDAY, APRIL 28, at 7:00 P.M., I'll be featured at the Turner South - My South Speaks competition for teens at Oglethorpe University's Conant Performing Arts Center - along with Avainti Dyer and Kodac Harrison.

I'll be performing an oldie-but-goodie, "Home," around 9:00 p.m. to close the show.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Pick-Up at the Post Office, or Some Doors Are Better Left

LAST THURSDAY AT THE GLENRIDGE POST OFFICE, I stood 7th-or-so in line waiting for an important package. The package would be my second correspondence packet from Anne Waldman, my mentor in the NEC MFA in Poetry Program this semester. This month's packet: The Booklength Poem. I was in line because the Priority Mail envelope - though decidedly not booklength - would have been too large to fit in my matchbox-sized P.O. Box.

But the 1st packet's size didn't stop the Post Office from stuffing it into my box after it disappeared for no less than nine days in its bureaucratic blizzard of boxes, postcards, and envelopes. Countless phone calls -"Are you sure you didn't pick it up, sir? We show it was received" and "It must be here somewhere. What was your name again?" - and numerous in-person visits put me on a not-too-friendly first-face basis with the entire Glenridge staff.

But that's another story. Today, I was here, 7th in line, to pick up my packet.

As I waited, noticing the new Marian Anderson stamp and contemplating naughty uses for bubblewrap, she tapped me on the shoulder.

"Are you here to pick up a package?"

Did I make that much of a scene last month that they're sending agents out to intercept me before I reach the counter?

It took me a second to emerge from my bubblewrap fantasy and realize that the postal clerk had not in fact singled me out, but instead was just making her way down the line.

"Yes, actually I am picking up a package." I handed her my driver's license.

"M_rv_n? M_rv_n H__th?" the young woman stammered with moon-sized eyes, as if she had discovered a lost star. Though I have developed a little notoriety as a writer, I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, famous. It was a little unnerving.

"Yes?" I said.

"You don't remember me?"

Oh no.

In truth, I had no idea who the woman was. Some drunken fling? If that was the case and I said I didn't know her, I was one syllable away from getting slapped.

Cain't a brother just pick up a package in peace?

Before I could say no:

"_e_ia... I'm _e_ia __llia__s' sister. You don't remember me?"

I scanned the database which, here on the other side of 30, is getting muddier and muddier by the day.

First, _e_ia __llia__:

Your Junior Prom date.

Next, her sister:

Did _e_ia have a baby sister? Who was this woman claiming to know your high school prom date? Was she a stalker?

I decided to go along for the ride.

"Oh, now I remember," I lied.

"I can't believe it's you. Don't just stand there. Gimme a hug!"

Before I knew it, her arms were around me.

"How's your brother doing?"

Ah, now it finally clicked. Though I couldn't recall her name, I now remembered that this woman had a HUGE crush on my baby brother. They were in the same grade. Which meant the last time I saw her, she would have been 11!

And she had the nerve to ask if I remembered her...

"Oh, he's doing well. He an engineer and lives in ____ia."

"My sister's not gonna believe I saw you." She beamed. "Let me go get your package." She scurried off.


The clerk returned with my package: Anne Waldman. I couldn't wait to tear into it.

"Well, it was good seeing you," I said. "How's your sister doing?"

"Oh, she works in Ohio for ___or & _a__le. She's doing good. I'll tell her you asked about her. I can't wait to tell her I saw you."

Then came the awkward moment. Would I keep in touch? I looked beyond the swinging door.

"Take care," I said.

"Oh, you, too," she said.

And, I exited without another word - without taking her name - and closed the door behind me.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

To the BUSTER Who Stole My Visa Check Card Number (Pt II)

MONDAY, 11 APRIL 2005, 8:01 a.m.

"South Trust Customer Service, how may I help you?"

"I'm calling to inquire about the origins of, what I believe to be, an unauthorized Visa Check charge on my checking account."

"Yes, sir," he said, "I'll be glad to help you... With whom am I speaking?"

"_a__i_ _ea__"

"And the last four digits of your social?"


"Now what charges do you believe to be in question?"

"Well, yesterday morning, I checked my balance over the phone, and it said that my available balance was over negative $330 dollars. Can you tell me what charge put my account in the negative?"

"Let's see... Well, these are charges that are pending, but which have not yet posted to the account. The first charge was $273.XX at Walmart-"

"Walmart? I didn't go to Walmart this weekend."

"Well, sometimes it takes a couple of days for items to post."

"I haven't been to Walmart in the past couple of weeks. Are there other charges?"

"Well, here's a charge for 74 dollars and XX cents at Walgreens... another for 65.21 cents at Walgreens..."

"Do you show where these charges originated?"

"Well, this Walgreen's charge is showing in St. Louis, Missouri..."

"St. Louis? I've never even been to St. Louis-"

"Well, just because charges originate from a place doesn't mean that that's where they were made. Sometimes, we show the location of the corporate office..."

"Okay, what about the other charges?"

"Well, the other two Walgreen's charges are also in St. Louis... The Walmart charge is in St. Louis..."

The Show Me State? How bout Show Me Some ID?!

"Okay, someone has compromised my Visa Check Card. I don't know how this happened. I've had my card in my possession this entire weekend, and I didn't make any on-line purchases. What is the procedure to file a fraud claim?"

"I thought you said that you made the Walmart purchase."

What the f*ck!


"Well, have you ordered a new card recently that you never received?"

"No. I have only one card and it has never left my hands."

"I see. Well, since these disputed items are only pending and haven't yet posted to your account, you have to wait until they actually post to dispute them - which will be tomorrow morning. At that point, you should call the Fraud Department at 1-800-xxx-xxxx."

"So you're telling me that there's nothing I can do until Tuesday."

"Well, we can shut off your card and mail you a new one."

"Yes, let's shut off the card."

"... ... ... ... Okay, the card is now deactivated. And where would you like the new card sent?"

Up your a$$, you corporate cog

"Let's wait until we get this settled before I order a new card."

"Will there be anything else, Mr. _ea__?

"No, you've been very helpful."

"Have a good day."

"I'll try."

Monday, April 11, 2005

To the BUSTER Who Stole My Visa Check Card Number (Pt. I)

THE SWALLOWS SINGING, THE BRADFORD PEARS BLOOMING, THE SUN shining - what could be better than a 70-degree Sunday morning in April in Georgia?

As I routinely do in planning my budget for the week, I checked my checking account balance via phone. Much to my surprise, the automated female attendant said:

AVAILABLE BALANCE: negative $334._2

The bottom dropped out of my stomach. I know I didn't just hear what I thought I heard.

I quickly hung up and called back. Again:

negative $334._2

Negative! What the f*ck? My auto insurance was due in a week, as it is every 6 months. Was it possible that, back in October, I had unwittingly set up an automated draft that sent my account tumbling into cash collapse?

I'm essentially no-go when it comes to automated drafts - especially when it comes to something as substantial as auto insurance, for fear that something just like this might happen. Perhaps someone had written me a bounced check. Or could it be the long arm of the IRS? What else could I be overlooking?

As the automated phone system couldn't yet give me details on the vendor associated with the offending charge, I tried to check on-line. But neither was the line item for the charge yet posted there.

These were facts: 1) The offending charge had happened over the weekend, 2) My Visa Check card had never left my possession, and 3) The only two purchases I'd made that weekend were a #6 (Baja w/ chicken) at Taco Bell and a Big Zax Snack at Zaxby's.

Naturally, no live person was available in my bank's customer service on Sunday to help me further investigate. So, I had to wait until Monday morning to get to the bottom of things. And you can best believe that I did...