China, Black Poetry, and Me
When I thought I was going to visit China, I began thinking about the picture that I held in my head about the country and about the information used to create that portrait, for example, news media, television shows, movies, articles, books, and personal encounters with Chinese immigrants and with Americans of Chinese descent. Exactly how it came together is impossible to recall. All I have is a memory moving forward as it recovers the past, recovering meaning literally to cover some things up again while retrieving others. What always stands out, though, is how Black poetry factored in the process.
Hughes and Du Bois
Langston Hughes was the first poet I read who had visited China. In his second autobiography, I Wonder as I Wander, he described his 1933 visit to Shanghai. Among the sights in the International Settlement were segregated hotels and clubs. Hughes recalled, “I was constantly amazed in Shanghai at the impudence of white foreigners in drawing a color line against the Chinese in China itself.” He also witnessed the exploitation of child labor and saw evidence of crime rackets controlled mainly by Europeans with encroachment by Japanese increasing. Hughes spent time with the renowned leftist writer Lu Xun. But much of his public support of Chinese self-determination came later. In “Roar, China,” published in 1938, he exhorted,
Break the chains of the East,
Little coolie boy!
Break the chains of the East,
Break the chains of the East,
Child slaves in the factories!
Smash the iron gates of the Concessions!
Smash the pious doors of the missionary houses!
Smash the revolving doors of the Jim Crow Y.M.C.A.’s
Crush the enemies of land and bread and freedom!
Stand up and roar, China!
You know what you want!
The only way to get it is
To take it!
“Roar China” is probably the most well-known of a group of works known as Hughes’s China poems, his identifying of anti-imperialist, revolutionary developments in China with the Black Freedom Movement in the United States as well as other freedom struggles outside of China.
W. E. B. Du Bois weighed in similarly. At the close of his second of three trips to China, in 1959, he wrote a lengthy poem of solidarity and celebration titled “I Sing to China.” Early in the piece, he declares, of the United States, “My country, ‘tis of thee/Rich land of slavery, of thee/I cannot sing.” As the poem progresses, he implores China to “Grip the hands of Black Folk!” among the tasks it must accomplish. He concludes, Hughes-like, “Arise, China!”
Black Arts Movement
That China symbolized a relevant revolution was an impression strengthened for me by several poets of the Black Arts Movement. For example, there was Keorapetse Kgositsile, a South African who had been living in exile in New York City since the beginning of the 1960s and would graduate from the MFA program at Columbia University a few years before I matriculated. In his 1968 poem, “The Awakening,” he wrote,
I flirted with Marx
Kept my ear open to Tshaka,
Moshoeshoe, Dingane, Garvey, DuBois.
Then came Nkrumah’s voice,
Heraldic of bearings flowery as spring.
Lumumba, Kenyatta, Mandela, Sobukwe,
Kuada, Babu, Castro, Tour[e], Mao---
Twentieth century recipe
For a grass roots favorite dish.
I had not sampled as much as Kgositsile. But some Du Bois, as indicated. Some Garvey. Nkrumah would soon become crucial. Chatter about Lumumba’s assassination remains a stark childhood memory, but I had not read deeply about it yet. Castro and his entourage had made a big splash at the Hotel Theresa in my native Harlem. And there was Mao on the list of ingredients, the last ingredient, in fact, of the grass roots dish.
Al Young, also in a 1968 poem, includes Mao in a semantic field. The entirety of “The Myth Science of Our Time” reads,
Young does not bestow on these items any status equivalent to “favorite dish,” but the inclusion of Mao recognizes the Chinese leader’s popularity among activists. The poet is not indicating disbelief, though some skepticism is implied. The oxymoron “myth science” seems to suggest that Young is keeping judgment on these matters close to his vest while giving readers plenty to ponder.
Gylan Kain’s “Look Out for the Blue Guerilla” is more directive than the entries by Kgositsile and Young. It is a track on the 1971 album, The Blue Guerilla, which I hastily added to my collection of poetry albums where it would exist alongside the eponymous The Last Poets and the second recording by the group, This Is Madness; Right On, by the Original Last Poets, of which Kain was a member; Black Ivory by Wanda Robinson (later Laini Mataka); and Small Talk on 125th Street and Pieces of a Man by Gil-Scott Heron. Kain recites,
To all y’all sons of the Pentagon
Write a haiku from Chairman Mao
Tell them, tell them, tell them you can’t shit the shitter, baby
No matter how hard you try.
The brilliant Kain shook things up poetically and politically. Stylistically, he put the blues form to work in the Black Arts context. He stitched a traditional Japanese poetic form, not one normally associated with the poet Mao, to the Chinese head of state and then stitched that construct to the African-American vernacular. The thematic import is that offspring of America’s military-industrial complex are not people who necessarily rearticulate U. S. militaristic inclinations or imperialist aims. They are free enough through art to adopt wiser viewpoints. To be sure, Kain’s piece identifies other entities worth paying attention to, in particular a revolutionary, retribution-seeking spirit embodied as the Blue Guerilla. But my point here is that through Kain’s use of the metonym Chairman Mao, China became reinforced in my consciousness as symbolic of radical potential.
Sonia Sanchez visited China in 1973 and provided work based on their travel, work that was quieter than that of Gylan Kain. Sonia Sanchez wrote a series of haiku while in China that she included that same year in her volume Love Poems. The haiku do not appear to be overtly rhetorical, but politics are encoded therein. Writing in Beijing, Sanchez offers,
let me wear the day
well so when it reaches you
you will enjoy it.
The poem was written to her children, Mungu and Morani. According to critic Toru Kiuchi, the poem functions on at least two levels. It conveys the literal fact of being many time zones ahead of her children back in the United States and the wish to pass a pleasant day on to them. It also puts forward the idea that Sanchez is trying to enmesh herself in Chinese society as much as possible to be able to relay news of those presumed beneficial encounters.
Dennis Brutus, a second South African exile who was living in the United States, also visited China in 1973 and presented poems to his hosts on his departure as a token of his “appreciation, affection and esteem.” At a dance festival in Beijing, after being given a gift by children, he composed and recited,
Over the Bridge of Golden Water
Through the Gate of Heavenly Peace
is the People’s Palace of Leisure.
One understands this as a comment of positive political regard when context is considered, that is, the turning over of the palace, once a place of worship for emperors, to the masses in 1950.
Musing about the plight of victorious soldiers, Brutus writes in celebratory fashion,
Seeing the peaks
they had to conquer
lost in the mists
their spirits must have quailed:
but a sense of the intimacy
between humankind and earth
kept them strong.
Such ruminations about soldiers could hardly not lead to a comment about head of those forces. Brutus does it a bit awkwardly,
Mao freed China.
I say awkwardly because he was reproached---I assume not too harshly---by hosts who pointed out to him that Mao would give the credit to the Chinese people.
By the time that Brutus’s China Poems was published in 1975, Black Maoism had a strident poetry champion in Amiri Baraka. In “The Dictatorship of the Proletariat” he described that group as the ones,
Who must lead the masses of us, with a revolutionary vanguard
party at the helm guided by science, guided by the science, the
science of marxism-leninism-mao tse-tung thought.
Al Young might have asked, “You mean guided by the myth science, don’t you?”
Naturally, given the diversity of opinion that always exists in the Black community, there were Black folks, including some poets, who were hesitant or outright oppositional concerning Black Maoism. Gil Scott-Heron’s “Brother,” released around the same time as Gylan Kain’s “Look Out for the Blue Guerilla” reflects this,
We deal in too many externals, brother
Always afro’s, handshakes, and dashikis
Never can a man build a working structure for black capitalism
Always does the man read Mao or Fanon
I think I know you would-be black revolutionaries too well
Standing on a box on the corner, talking about blowing the white boy
That’s not where it’s at yet, brother
I agreed that the strategy Gil Scott-Heron attributed to soapbox orators was not the best political plan. I also affirmed the idea that externals were overemphasized. But what I questioned in the poem was the hope expressed for “black capitalism” and the negative portrayal of reading Mao or Fanon. To be fair, the poem criticizes the always reading of Mao or Fanon. The poet does not suggest that Mao or Fanon should never be read. Yet, given the poet’s patience for hearing a workable theory of black capitalism, which I considered a dubious proposition, the poem appeared to be an argument against so-called foreign theory being applied to the plight of African Americans.
What would be the specific objection to Fanon? I took that to be the same objection to Mao, the championing of socialism and maybe Mao’s statement, included in the Red Book, that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” I had to acknowledge, then, the presence and to some degree the validity of the sentiment projected by Scott-Heron. Herbert Lee Pitts was more forceful. In “We Must Lead,” he satirizes people who shallowly employ symbols of revolution:
“Red book in pocket”
Sister on arm---who wears expensive
Leslie Uggam’s afro wig
(almost looked real even
Well schooled in Marxist theories
Join the do-nothings club
For Pitts, the Red Book is but a component of social impotence.
Don L. Lee/Haki Madhubuti shared the skepticism of Scott-Heron and Pitts. His poem, “The Third World Bond,” reads:
& they often talked
of the third world
& especially of the power
(quoting mao every 3rd word)
& the blk/sisters knew it
while the brothers/
the sisters waited.
(& wondered when the revolution would start)
Madhubuti, in his cultural nationalism, cannot prioritize Third Worldism over a vision of African-American men and women---the brothers and the sisters---united in a struggle for political change. Race, to Madhubuti, should rank higher in the hierarchy of activism than theories from abroad and interethnic alliances. Those could only compromise racial advancement.
The White-Haired Girl
To summarize, I could draw at the close of 1975 a jagged line across Black poetry to trace affirmation of the People’s Republic and to point out the negative criticisms. The picture emerged as complicated and became increasingly so. To assess my recent “China of the mind” is another project. I do recall, however, lines from Baron James Ashanti’s “Beijing Spring,” which is included in his 1990 poetry volume Nova:
Official rhetoric cannot ease tragedy
this circus of emotions
where destiny is carnivorous
and mothers wait for children to return
and oh . . .
whatever happened to
The White Haired Girl?
In an accompanying note, Ashanti explains that Yan Jinxuan’s The White Haired Girl is a “revolutionary Chinese ballet whose protagonist is a symbol of the aspirations of common people in triumph against the forces of oppression.”
Poets will always weigh in on the evolution of China. Moreover, the echoes of poets will remain in the air. Neither Du Bois nor Scott-Heron are ever to be ignored. And it’s never a bad time for the White Haired Girl to make an appearance.