Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Nikki Giovanni

... read to an overfilling auditorium tonight as part of the UA Poetry Center's visiting poet series, cohosted by the UA's Africana Studies program. What an incredible reading and amazing woman. She wove stories (and entertaining, pointed lectures, really) of African's middle passage to the Americas and slavery, of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks (her friend and the subject of a children's book she just published, and from which she read), of being invited, as part of Black History Month, to read/lecture at NASA. She accepted because she is "a big fan of space, you know."

She read, nearly sung, this one, from her book by the same name:

Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea (We're Going to Mars)

We're going to Mars for the same reason
Marco Polo rocketed to China
for the same reason Columbus
trimmed his sails on a dream of spices
for the very same reason Shakelford
was enchanted with penguins
for the reason we fall in love
It's the only adventure

We're going to Mars because Peary
couldn't go to the North Pole
without Matthew Henson
because Chicago couldn't be a city
without Jean Baptiste DuSable
because George Washington Carver and his
peanut was the right partner for Booker T.
It's a life seeking thing

We're going to Mars because whatever is
wrong with us will not get right with us
so we journey forth carrying the same baggage
but every now and then leaving
one little bitty thing behind:
maybe drop torturing hunchbacks here;
maybe drop lynching Billy Budd there;
maybe not whipping Uncle Tom to death;
maybe resisting global war.
One day looking for prejudice to slip ... one
day looking for hatred to tumble by the wayside
... one day maybe the whole community
will no longer be vested in who sleeps with
whom ... maybe one day the Jewish community
will be at rest ... the Christian community
will be content ... the Muslim community will
be at peace ... and all the rest of us will get
great meals at holy days and learn new
songs and sing in harmony
We're going to Mars because it gives us a
reason to change
If Mars came here it would be ugly
nations would band together to hunt down
and kill Martians
and being the stupid undeserving life forms
that we are
we would also hunt down and kill what
would be termed Martian Sympathizers
As if the Fugitive Slave Law wasn't bad
enough then

As if the so-called War on Terrorism isn't
pitiful now
When do we learn and what does it take to
teach us things cannot be:
   What we want
   When we want
   As we want
Other people have ideas and inputs
And why won't they leave Rap Brown alone
The future is ours to take

We going to Mars because we have the
hardware to do it ...
we have rockets and fuel and money and
stuff and the only reason NASA is holding
back is they don't know If what they send
out will be what they get back
So let me slow this down:

Mars is 1 year of travel to get there ...
plus 1 year of living on Mars ...
plus 1 year to return to Earth ...
= 3 years of Earthlings being in a tight
space going to an unknown place with an
unsure welcome awaiting them ...
tired muscles ... unknown and unusual
foods ... harsh conditions ... and no known
landmarks to keep them human ...
only a hope and a prayer that they will be
shadowed beneath a benign hand and there is
no historical precedence for that except this:
The trip to Mars can only be understood
through Black Americans
I say, the trip to Mars can only be understood
through Black Americans

The people who were captured and
enslaved immediately recognized the men
who chained and whipped them and herded
them into ships so tightly packed there was
no room to turn ... no privacy to respect ... no
tears to fall without landing on
another ... were not kind and gentle and concerned
for the state of their souls ... no ... the
men with whips and chains were understood
to be killers ... feared to be cannibals
... known to be sexual predators ... The
captured knew they were in trouble ... in an
unknown place ... without communicable
abilities with a violent and capricious
species ... But they could look out and still
see signs of Home they could still smell the
sweetness in the air
they could see the clouds floating above the
land they loved
But there reached a point where the captured
could not only not look back
they had no idea which way "back" might be
there was nothing in the middle of the deep
blue water to indicate which way home
might be and it was that moment ... when a
decision had to be made:
Do they continue forward with a resolve to
see this thing through or do they embrace
the waters and find another world
In the belly of the ship a moan was
heard ... and someone picked up the
moan ... and a song was raised ... and that
song would offer comfort ... and hope ... and
tell the story ...

When we go to Mars ... it's the same
thing ... it's Middle Passage
When the rocket red glares the astronauts
will be able to see themselves pull away
from Earth ... as the ship goes deeper they
will see a sparkle of blue ... and then one day
not only will they not see Earth ... they won't
know which way to look ... and that is why
NASA needs to call Black America

They need to ask us: How did you calm your
fears ... How were you able to decide you
were human even when everything said you
were not ... How did you find the comfort in
the face of the improbable to make the
world you came to your world ... How was

your soul able to look back and wonder
And we will tell them what to do:
To successfully go to Mars and back you will
need a song ... take some Billie Holiday for
the sad days and some Charlie Parker for
the happy ones but always keep at least one
good spiritual for comfort ... You will need a
slice or two of meatloaf and if you can man
age it some fried chicken in a shoebox with
a nice moist lemon pound cake ... a bottle of
beer because no one should go that far
without a beer and maybe a six-pack so that
if there is life on Mars you can share ...
Popcorn for the celebration when you land
while you wait on your land legs to kick in ...
and as you climb down the ladder from your
spaceship to the Martian surface ... Iook to
your left ... and there you'll see a smiling
community quilting a black-eyed pea ...
watching you descend

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