JANUARY 18, 2016
ON THIS MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. DAY in 2016, after yet another non-indictment (in the Tamir Rice case) — I call this current era the “Time of Ferguson.” I wish I could call it by another name — our one black president (that we may ever have?) is about to leave us, and we are walking into violent times. I am thankful to have moments of reprieve, and moments of remembrance with Southern Black poets and artists. That’s where my conversations all started. When the shooting in Mother Emmanuel happened on June 17, 2015, I gathered my friends, and said: we have to talk about this. The world should hear from us. What would come out of these conversations, I do not know. A type of healing, I suppose. I am grateful that poet, editor, and South Carolina native Hafizah Geter could sit with me for a while, and think about what it means to be a young black woman from South Carolina. Our conversation, which took place between June 29-July 2 in 2015, follows.
DÉLANA R.A. DAMERON: Kwame Dawes must have put us on each other’s radar. I think the last AWP I attended in Washington, DC back in 2011, we were in the book fair. You were talking to Kwame and he said, “Here’s another South Carolina poet,” and you knew about my book somehow. I was delighted to meet another young black woman poet from South Carolina in the world. Are there that few of us?
HAFIZAH GETER: Kwame Dawes was our first introduction to each other. My father teaches art at an HBCU in Columbia, South Carolina. Kwame used to teach at the University of South Carolina, and I suppose they found each other the way black artists do. Kwame’s Midland was probably the first contemporary book of poetry I ever read Before that it was mainly Nikki Giovanni and Pablo Neruda for me. It was Kwame who told my father about your book, How God Ends Us. I think both Kwame and my father understood the importance for me to know, not just other black writers, but also black women writers. In terms of numbers of black writers/poets in the South, South Carolina in particular, it’s hard to say if we are few versus ignored and actively kept out of the game. Like many aspects of the South, whiteness prevails. Whiteness is nurtured. If it wasn’t for my father introducing me to the work of Kwame and Kwame pointing me towards other writers, I can’t say where I would be. Would I still be a writer? Probably. But I think I’d be a very different kind of writer.
In thinking about that, our age, our generation, I want to put our world into this conversation — two young black women from South Carolina. Two young black women writers coming of age in the age of Dub-yah (George W. Bush) and 9-11, who have known a life before a war on terrorism. And — at least for me — who remember how quickly the world changed in my high school English classroom when I watched the towers crumble like old receipts. Though, I think our South Carolina world (I was in ninth grade geography in 2000 when we had debates on where the Confederate flag should be put) has always been fraught with a type of tension. I guess I’m trying to say, the red clay dirt teaches one hard lessons. And early. All the things we’ve suffered up to this point before we were 30: the great recession, Iraq and Afghanistan, Katrina, and now this, and all of the violent murders at the hands of the state, at the hands of civilians, against black bodies. I make no misstep to identify them as black men and women, as we are. I guess I’m saying, all of this has happened all over the world, and I guess I don’t even think about a flag as the panacea to the problems the world has inherited, and we are inheriting, still. What is it you think about?
In terms of the flag, there is no doubt in my mind that it is a symbol of racism and white supremacy and that it should absolutely come down. It should have never been up in the first place. In terms of branding, it’s an absolute marketing success for racist values. The “heritage not hate” argument falls really flat with me. There is no way to separate the supposed “heritage” from slavery, Jim Crow, or segregation, or black people literally having water hoses or dogs set loose on them by the police, and the man who designed flag didn’t want it to be divorced from those values.
The Confederate flag represents a time of state-sponsored terrorism on black people. It’s great to see that places like Walmart are no longer selling the Confederate flag, and when even Mitt Romney is saying South Carolina should remove the flag from the Capitol grounds, there might be a shot that it will be removed.
But let’s be clear on what we are actually talking about. We are talking about a symbol. Removing a symbol doesn’t dismantle what it represents. That takes real work. As Toni Morrison said, it is not the job of people of color to end racism. That is white work. America’s brief moment of euphoria after Obama was elected into office did not usher in a post-racial society. Instead, racism came out of the woodwork. The Birther movement was so real it has a Wikipedia page. No one questions the legitimacy of whiteness. I think on one end removing the Confederate flag is a step in the right direction — you don’t see Germany flying swastikas over government buildings — but on the other hand, removing the Confederate flag is just a panacea. It’s a way for whiteness to feel good about itself. Flag or no flag, there are still large numbers of people who deny that white privilege exists. People who think that after hundreds of years of treating black people as property, then as second-class citizens, and decades of laws intended to disenfranchise communities of color, that we aren’t trying hard enough. It frustrates me. It makes me angry. It makes me tired. If only the cancer of racism was as simple as removing a flag. These are dark times, but also very hopeful. #BlackTwitter and #BlackPoetsSpeakOut move me. We have incredible activists and scholars who are POC like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Darnell Moore, Feminista Jones, Alex-Quan Pham, and Bree Newsome. They are daily reminders of how strong communities of color are. How engaged. How selfless. Their words and actions help me stay sane and I love them for that.
When the image of Bree Newsome removing the Confederate flag from Columbia’s Capitol building hit Twitter, I was like, “Hell yeah.” I joked with my dad that the caption for that picture should be, “When you get tired of repeating yourself…” But in all seriousness, people of color have literally been having to say the same thing over and over. But then a week later, the KKK holds a rally in front of the Capitol building on Gervais street. Maybe I am naïve, but I feel, and have always felt, that love and equality is easier on the soul. I see all these home grown racists, the overt and the subtle ones, and I think they must be as tired as we are. Racism is an extremely infectious virus. It’s stunts everything, from reproductive justice to the economy.
When did you leave the South? Tell me your story. How has your relationship to it changed?
I have a complicated relationship to the South. On one hand, I find so many parts of it stunning. The landscape can be so beautiful. The food is delicious! And Southerners have perfected the art of small talk. I find that there is generally a warmness there in your everyday encounters. A generosity. People are really, really nice. But many of them have not confronted race and its impact. I think this is true for both white people and people of color. The racism in the South can be really subtle and difficult to navigate for people of color. And in turn, assuming dignity and avoiding microagressions (though there is nothing micro about the impact of the aggressions) in interactions with people of color can be really hard for white people. Most schools, especially in the South, don’t give any of us the language to have meaningful conversations about it. And honestly, I think many white people are scared to confront it. To confront it means accepting their complicity. Which is the first step. You have to see and acknowledge a problem to fix it, versus telling millions of people of color that they are somehow sharing some collective delusion.
I left South Carolina shortly after I graduated from undergrad. I went to Chicago for my MFA. When I left, my father told me to do whatever I had to to make sure I never came back. He never wanted the South to be home for me again. What an extraordinary thing to say to your child.
The knowledge a black person has to acquire to survive the violence of America, especially in the South, is heart-shattering. But it is also a testament to our strength as a people. We have survived hundreds of years of attempted genocide by white supremacists and by our own government. My father also once said to me that black people might be the only people who truly believe in democracy. And keep in mind, my father was born in 1945, years before desegregation was passed through legislation, and even more years before it was actually realized. So I understand where he is coming from. And what I’ve experienced of America tells me not to dismiss it. Black communities have been under constant attack for centuries, but still we believe in this country, still we fight for a version of America that will love us back. And that, right there, is an extraordinary type of love.
Before moving to South Carolina, we lived in Akron, Ohio. Ohio never struck me as having strong cultural markers, of course there are things that happened that I find to be very Ohio. But, the South, the South struck me. It was so different. There was a very specific and intricate dialect, people had their own code of dress, their own way of walking. People called every kind of soda Coke. It fascinated me. And so, I think I absorbed myself in figuring it out. And in trying to figure it out, it became a part of me. Frankly, I’m glad I came of age there and I would never change that. But as an adult who has left the South, it is my responsibility to see it for what it was.
Tell me about how you learned about the massacre at the Emmanuel AME church on June 17, 2015. Take me into your interior. Does it mean anything special that it happened in Charleston? What was your reaction?
So, I woke up Thursday at 4am to, what I thought was, the sound of my apartment door opening. I immediately shot straight up in bed trying to hear if someone was in my apartment. After enough quiet passed, I grabbed the longest knife I could from the kitchen and searched in closets, behind the shower curtain — any place large enough for a person to hide. I’m sure I looked crazy. Once I was sure I was alone, to distract myself from the paranoia, I pulled out my phone to see who was up on Twitter. It was when I saw that #CharlestonShooting was trending that I found out about the Emmanuel AME shooting.
It’s amazing how the psyche works — even though my Brooklyn apartment was secure, I did indeed wake to an intruder: nine black people senselessly gunned down by a white shooter in our home state of South Carolina. As the hours passed, news slowly trickled out (didn’t it feel like mainstream media was getting around to it when it could?). Eventually, I learned the shooter came from our hometown of Columbia. Later that morning around 10, my dad, who still lives in Columbia called to find out where I was. Even though my sister and are both in our thirties and hundreds of miles away from the scene, my father still needed to know where we were, that we were safe, and to tell us, for the day to stay out of public buildings. That’s what racism does to you, especially as a person of color and a parent. No matter where or how old your children are you can never be sure they are safe.
I think as a person of color, Charleston is a place that best exemplifies Zora Neale Hurston’s, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” For me, Charleston is the perfect intersection of violence and beauty.
But if you really look around and if you understand anything, and I mean anything, about the history of this country from slavery to present day, you quickly see the mountain of dirt under the South Carolina rug. One of the things to do when visiting Charleston is to go on one of its historic tours. I’m sure, DéLana, you’ve been on a few. And as you know, Charleston was the largest slave port in the American colonies; about 40 percent of Africans came in through the city during the time of the slave trade. It was literally the nation’s slave trade capitol. The story of slavery in America begins in Charleston. Fast forward to present day, where many of the tours examine the history of slavery in Charleston. In one aspect, I think: good, the city acknowledges its monumental role in slavery and takes the blame for it, but I can’t help but also think, slavery (or the history of it) is still making this damn city money. It is still dollars in the tourism piggy bank. People still have weddings on Charleston plantations! It’s a sign of affluence, mind you.
So, when I look at the history of this country, how much of that history originated in Charleston, and how little work we’ve done collectively to really address the inequities of race and to dismantle white supremacy and hatred — what happened at the AME church doesn’t surprise me. And that lack of surprise is haunting. I want racism, when it pops up, to be such a rare bird that it shocks my senses. But it doesn’t shock my senses; all it does is stiffen my shoulders. It makes me extremely angry. I think a lot of black people have rage over what’s happening. Right now, America is banking on the fact that our rage will be quiet. I also think there is a lot to say of the bed that race, religion, and politics share in the South, and I think that spins the narrative around all this even more, because religion is equally as prevalent for whites in the south as it is for blacks.
How has your time in the South impacted your identity as a writer?
In terms of how the south has impacted me as a writer, looking back, I think when I first seriously began approaching poetry, I approached it as a Southerner. I chose this. The first poems I wrote were, I suppose, unconsciously exploring what Natasha Tretheway refers to as the geography of a poem (physical, linguistic, architectural, sonic, emotional, intellectual). The writer, Pat Conroy, who is as South Carolina as it gets, said in his novel, Beach Music, “The South’s got a lot wrong with it. But it’s permanent press and it doesn’t wash out.” Apply that to racism in the South, there’s a lot of it and nope, it’s not washing out. Too many white people in the South don’t understand racism. They have no incentive to. They look around and think, “that’s just the way we do things round here.”
And then, what can art — Art with a capital “A” — do in a time like this?
I talked about this with Charif Shanahan when I interviewed him for Phantom Books. His feeling was that art can’t change the world in the larger sense, but that it can change individuals. It can give them a broader sense of themselves and of the world. I agree with Charif on that. We live in a new age. The average person doesn’t engage or have access to art the way the used to. Art can change the self. And then it’s up to the self to take that change into the world.
How do we take care of ourselves? What do we do? What do we say?
I think we take care of ourselves by fighting. By never giving up. And through education. One needs to know more about blackness than Jim Crow or MLK. Educate yourself, not only on the struggle, but what we have achieved. We built America. Garrett Morgan revolutionized the peanut and invented the first iterations of the gasmask and the stoplight! Read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “A Case for Reparations,” understand the context behind the infamous photograph, “The Soiling of Old Glory.” Know thy history. But in times when you need something more immediate, go on YouTube and listen to the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice.” That’s what I did after Charleston. I listened to it on repeat. It helped. Here’s my favorite version.
“Sing a song full of faith that the dark past has taught us, / Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us; / facing the rising sun of our new day begun, / let us march on till victory is won.” Thank you. I needed to think and hum a few lines myself. How did it move you, listening to it? How does it move you today?
So I come from a culturally split household. My mother was born and lived in Nigeria into her mid twenties. My father was born and grew up in Anniston, Alabama. My mother’s family is Muslim, my father’s, Southern Baptists. It was, actually, a pretty cool way to grow up. After my parents got married in Massachusetts they moved back to Nigeria and lived there for seven years. It’s where my sister and I were born. So when we moved back to the States, it was really important to my parents that my sister and I understand Blackness in all its forms.
They knew we could not understand ourselves without wholly understanding our heritage. So, my mother taught African dance classes and all the time we were being dragged to Black History events, February or not. Black history was-year round in the Geter house. And, while we were young, my mother took us to Kwanzaa events. I understand that Kwanzaa is complicated now for many reasons surrounding accusations of abuse around its founder, but at the time, we didn’t know that, (the Internet wasn’t a thing). But, I know my mother missed Nigeria, and here were black Americans celebrating Africa and black heritage. But pretty much every event we went to opened or closed with the singing of the Black National Anthem. It was always my favorite part. The music of it is phenomenal, I could recognize that even as a child. And even though, that young, I couldn’t have quite comprehended the lyrics, it made me feel proud. Crazy proud of my Blackness, and what the history of it had accomplished. To this day it makes me feel immense.
We’re about the same age, so I want to ask you this. This September, I’ll be approaching my second year of marriage, and my family and my married family is pressuring me to begin family planning. But I just don’t know, Hafizah. You know? How do you feel about this idea? Can you speak towards violence against our black skins and how it might impact your future life planning?
Violence against people of color is absolutely a reproductive justice issue. I don’t have any children yet, but I’ve got one nephew, who is five, and another on the way. Their future lives scare the hell out of me. In a phone conversation with my sister, I told her not to dress my nephew in hoodies, jerseys, or anything else that might make him appear as a threat to “the state” or whiteness. This is not a conversation white people are having.
I want both of my nephews to live full and complete lives, but I, also, am very aware of all the forces working against black masculinity in this country. I think being a person of color and a parent must be fraught with terror. Of course there is joy, immense joy — I’ve witnessed it. But the fear, the fear, I imagine, is constantly present. The thought that anything could happen to my nephews because of their black bodies smashes my heart. The risk they are at from the day they are born is injustice in it’s purest form. I read at a poetry reading where one of the poets, Rico Frederick, said “My lady knows that the moment she has a child she invests in a stop watch.” What more is there to say?
What does the world look like in 5 years? 2020. Clearer vision? Where is poetry and art in it?
DéLana, I have no clue. Which is kind of wonderful. The world could be anything, which also means that it could be great. Though, let’s not be ridiculous: racism isn’t going to be dead in five years. Though, maybe we will be having real conversations about it. Real work from both sides of the fence and not mainly just from people of color.
Maybe mainstream media will stop demonizing black victims and empathizing with white perpetrators. Maybe we will actually do some real work when it comes to gun control. Or maybe we won’t. It could go either way.
It’s our job, our responsibility, is to tip the scales in the right direction. I think art will always be present. And I think it will only get stronger. Unfortunately, access to art is also tied into economics, but hopefully it will grow more equitable. I’m currently coordinating an art project with my father, Tyrone Geter, who is a visual artist. The goal is to pair black visual artists with black activists and have these individuals documented on both the page and the canvas. The first activist whose portrait will be done is going to be Darnell Moore. The nice thing about art is that it always has a voice.