Sh’ma Blog: Jews and African American: Inside the Voting Booth. A discussion with Black poet, Jaron Varner.
I find myself asked to defend my song, “I’m Not White, I’m Jewish” just about as often as you might suppose. Maybe more. I understand the critique. I feel it. I certainly have been given all the privileges a beige face is granted in this country. Jews pass as white, no doubt, but maybe passing doesn’t get at the whole story. This month’s Sh’ma Journal takes up the issue of Jewish voting. We vote, Mik Moore tells us in “Jewish Issues, Jewish Votes,” almost 80% Democratic, overwhelmingly more similar to the black voter than the white voter. Consider for a moment that at the ‘63 March on Washington, roughly half of the white attendants were Jews. Same goes for the Freedom Riders and for the lawyers of Jim Crow. The fifty-fifty split of white-black attendants that March on Washington organizer, Bayard Rustin, praised so loudly, falls to a meager twenty-five percent participation rate for whites; hardly a triumphant figure given that whites – minus Jews – then represented 88% of the US population. I ask why Jews and blacks look so similar behind the curtain of the voting booth as I try to understand the historical intersections between and overlap of Jews and African-Americans.
My exchange with Poet Jaron Varner is another step in that understanding. Not that one man can speak for an entire people, but I know if one must ask for a people’s ethos a poet’s voice registers more effectively than lifeless statistics. Jaron Hassaan, Poet, entrepreneur and activist is definitely on my top 5 favorite poets who are still alive. It was a privilege to get to ask him about his poems and use them as the jump off for a conversation about Jews, African-Americans and the 2012 elections.
From Detroit, Michigan, Jaron arrived in Iowa City to study at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He is the Executive Director and founder of The Renaissance Program. He is also known to rock many stages as a poet and rapper.
Matt BarI’m just going to try to isolate what you were thinking with certain lines within the context of the poem from your new book In Transit. The parts that are Bolded I’d like you riff on accordingly.
A LETTER TO THE QUEEN
How can I find the words to fashion suitable descriptions?
For your impressions simply supersede my comprehension.
Complex yet gracious, magical and mystical you are;
Eternity’s persistent path can’t unfold the enigma. How can I find the
words to formulate my admiration?
So elegant, sensational, you are my hero’s hero.
I could spend my nights counting the stars that light the heavens
and give each one a name that scrapes the surface of your
splendor and still fall shy of capsulizing each vague pseudo-title
with corresponding evidence that puts mere words to shame.
What written utterance may reward majesty with justice?
Incredible? Unforgettable? Sensational? Motivational?
No. For you’ve exceeded incredibility and you breathe
inspiration: Sitting beautifully like so, just waiting to exhale.
You encourage me to excel I must say, You go girl!
You are, stubborn yet sharing, caring and charming, enchanting,
enlightening, thoughtful and compassionate.
If I had a magic wand,
I’d pawn it for its greatest worth and spend it on treasures to
Dear Mother Earth.
Still waters run deep, they tell me—
As we drink from the speckled sky, Translucently Tranquil:
Your essence exudes luminescence.
Oprah Winfrey for President!
Maya Angelou for President!
You’re heaven sent. It would take longer than a pair of parallel lines to cross on their
way to meet with infinity for me to fathom your strength, your
courage, your grace and your wonder.
You’ve given birth to emperors, sages and Saviors.
Your majesty precedes your being in undulant waves.
Jaron: When I wrote this poem, it was to be recited at the Delta Ball (In honor of the Historic Black Sorority). At the time, our country had only been run by white men, so I had suggested that an influential, powerful, black woman be elected.
Originally I put Iyanla Vanzant in Dr. Angelou’s place, then I later changed it. In many facets of modern society, black women are both moms and dads. They work hard to provide and oftentimes are left to teach boys how to be men. Single black mothers are, by far, the strongest people I know.
Matt: Knowing the “father” of our country and leader of our nation is a black man, do you think that has any impact on the young black kids being raised by single mothers? Does it touch their hearts and minds in a particularly poignant or notable way? Do you think the single mothers see Obama in this way?
Jaron: Knowing that the leader of our country is a black man has a tremendous impact on all young black kids in general. I can remember the exact moment when I found out that Obama had won the race, I can remember walking a bit taller, holding my head a little higher, speaking to other black folks a little more in passing, or at least sharing an affirming nod. I thought to myself, wow, this is how white folks feel ALL the time! It was amazing.
For the first time in US history, I can now look a young black child in the eye and tell him or her, with the utmost of certainty, that with hard work and dedication, they can one day be the most powerful person in the world. Rich.
As far as the single mothers, I can’t speak for them. I would reckon that Obama’s winning the election had an effect on ALL blacks in the states (and around the world for that matter). It was a very powerful moment in our nation’s history.
Have you ever wondered to yourself what else is going on at a
given moment? For instance, what is the president doing right
now? How about the people in Hong Kong, what are they doing
this very second? Are they happy? Are they sad? Are they
awake? Are they sleeping? Are they thinking what I’m thinking?
Is someone doing what I’m doing, feeling how I feel and saying
what I’m saying? What if…what if someone at this moment is
looking how I look but not doing what I do? Is someone getting
killed right now? Probably so. Is someone giving birth right
now? Yeah, more than likely. Is someone feeling pain, feeling
joy, moving out, eating out, thinking nasty thoughts about me,
getting up, falling down, being told that they are HIV positive,
having a near death experience, falling in love, being told that
they were falsely diagnosed with cancer, being put to death for a
crime they didn’t commit, being aborted, laughing loud—but
crying on the inside, cheating, stealing, lying, praying, smoking,
snorting, slanging, balling, skipping, dreaming, licking,
crashing, sticking, throwing up after a wild night, masturbating,
conversating, demonstrating, regulating, reading…I WONDER.
Jaron: They say that when you meet someone, it isn’t them at all but their representative. When I wrote this piece, Bill Clinton was in office…there’s no telling what he was doing at that given moment. I wrote it to suggest that at any freeze-framed, cross-section, split-second of life, there are a myriad of activities going on…and of all the people in the states, the president’s actions seemed to be the most important to the most people.
Matt: It’s telling that one of the questions for the most recent Republican debate was: “If you weren’t running for President, what would they be doing at that moment?” What can a split-second of life tell a voter that is relevant to their choice of a candidate?
Jaron: Well, I would guess that after being through our nation’s most recent struggles together, from our tumultuous foreign wars, to our dismal domestic issues, we all have grown closer together as a group, we feel more connected than before, the OWS movement is proof of that: Folks from all different demographics and backgrounds coming together for the greater good.
When we think of our nation’s leader, we want someone who is of the people, someone who has been through the struggle, somebody that we can relate to. The GOP is only strengthening Obama’s political advantage by making it harder and harder for him to reach his successes. The American people can relate to that, mustering the power to succeed in the face of adversity. He is a hero in many ways. Let’s take the GOP nominees for example, Mitt seems like our sucky boss who was never around. Or like a Lumberg from that movie Office Space, somebody who runs his company well enough, but just lacks the social savvy to pick up on the fact that none of his employees really like it when he’s around. Newt comes off like an old grandfather who you never want to engage in a debate because of his self righteousness and condescending conversation style. Ron Paul is kinda like a crazy uncle who is super cool, but always smells kinda funny and laughs a little too much. All I am saying is, Obama is a man’s man. He is an advocate for Joe Everybody and not just John Somebody.
I wish to write the right words, to connect my brainwaves to the
ink-stained page. I dwell in a link-chained cage and sing like a
captive eagle: An orphan from the American family
son of Babylon on a journey to safely squander inheritance.
Jaron: The black experience in America is very unique. We have been burdened by the harsh realities of our history, here in the states and have felt the reverberations, even in today’s societal events. To say that I am “an orphan from the American family” illustrates the dual identities that I am forced to grapple with regularly. Take a job application for instance, Are we Africans? Or African Americans? We certainly are not just Americans. What if I were a British speaking white man from Africa, now living in the states…? Would I, then, be an African American? Of course not. I have come to the conclusion that to qualify as an African American, your ancestors are to have been brought here against their will.
Matt: As a black man, I wonder what the election of a black man to the Presidency means to you and how that emotion is informed by the fact that Barack Obama is, according to your definition, a black man but not an African-American?
Jaron: Black Americans and African Americans experience a similar plight. A man from Kenya can be racially profiled just as easy as a gangsta from Compton. The election of a black man to the Presidency means that America has evolved a bit. It shows that MLK stood for more that just having a dream and that our ancestors’ struggles were not entirely in vain.
Poem #4: A 3rd verse…
Now I’ve got a few lawyers and some new suits.
Gold coins keep the IRS from getting cute.
I bought a barbershop and real estate. Who says you can’t live and graduate from slinging weight?
I thank God for the blessings that He’s given me:
From the Trinity, to Purple Haze and Hennessey—
They both helped thru the pain and the rainstorms
when I was hustling and had to wear the same clothes.
Now I’m a General with soldiers that’s gettin’ dough
and a penthouse with a studio in Cali, yo!
Jean Paul Gaultier spray fills the air.
It’s not the millions that you make,
it’s the millionaires.
Demons creep up on you when you sleep.
I’m three deep bangin’ Pain in a Benz jeep;
Insomniac knight, crawling thru a daydream,
America’s streets have made a beast out of me.
You’ve gotta make it
from the rocks to the woods,
the woods to the plains,
the plains to the hills and the hills to the heavens—
You’ve ran through the water and you’ve crawled through the
the game’s changed you now it’s time to change the game.
Spark a revolution! Get your voice heard!
Through choice words, subjects, predicates and verbs:
The veterans have served now the cheddar is deserved,
I bet I’ll strike a nerve when I bean you with a curve.
Jaron: Self explanatory.
You Gotta Make It
v.1 I’ve got my back against the wall, both feets in the streets.
Nobody cares when you’re struggling with nothing to eat.
I’ve got beef but my stomach’s still growling and all my friends
called more often
when I was flossy and ballin’
but, the game’s the same, the names have changed and
I’ve realized I must maintain my fame.
I’m a survivor, so I gotta tighten my shoes
‘cause dude, when you’ve got nothin’ you’ve got nothin’ to lose.
My man hit me with an ounce of hay,
I doubled up, now I got a Q.P. and an ounce of yey’.
I bought an old burner and took the blow a step further,
I’m a Hustler Babay! And it’s murder!!
Listen, that’s the American Way: Kill the competition; build a pot to piss in
for a better today.
Look here, I came from the gutter, kid
and I got all my game from the government, I’m lovin’ it!!!
Matt: How does coming up on America’s streets shape your unique vision of the American Way and what lessons you have learned from the government? Why do you think the vast majority of the American streets vote for the Democratic vision of the American Way vs. the Republican vision of the American Way. In what ways can Detroit’s ghettoes, hoods, streets, where you came up, be generalized as the same as the hoods from Philadelphia, NYC, Chicago, LA streets?
Jaron: Growing up in America’s streets have given me a crash course in networking savvy, courage and entrepreneurship. The motto of a hustler is, “You make a way to make a way.”
Politics have intrigued me for quite some time now. Take the Presidential race for example: If it isn’t the ultimate popularity contest, then I don’t know what is…and for someone to gain popularity, they must be well liked and respected among the masses. The crux of this, of course, is what will people do to gain favor from others?
The vast majority of the American streets vote for the Democratic Party, rather than the GOP because, again, they want someone who will advocate for them. Someone who will stand up and speak for those who feel beat down and voiceless. Detroit’s ghettos are no different from any other across the states; There is poverty, crime and desperation. We are no longer looking for a hero, we are looking for some hope.