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Last Modified: February 21, 2022
Uche Umezurike interviews Valerie Mason-John, author of I Am Still Your Negro
Uche Umezurike Interviews Valerie Mason-John

Valerie Mason-John is a public speaker, coach, and poet. They’re the author of ten books, and the co-author and co-founder of Eight Step Recovery: Using the Buddha’s Teaching to Overcome Addiction. Mason-John is also the co-creator of Mindfulness Based Addiction Recovery (MBAR) and trains professionals in the fields of mindfulness, recovery, and addiction. 

Uche Umezurike spoke with Mason-John about their poetry collection I Am Still Your Negro: An Homage to James Baldwin (University of Alberta Press, 2020), which deals with identity, intimacy, family, community, indigeneity, violence, racism, and trauma. Valerie Mason-John’s poetry is rooted in social and gender justice practices and environmental advocacy. James Baldwin was an African American novelist, playwright, essayist, and activist.   

How did you deal with vulnerability in I Am Still Your Negro, given that many of the poems reflect personal and collective narratives?

The narratives in the book, sadly, are documenting and talking about real lives in society today. Once I would have turned away from the micro and macro aggressions that happen to my peoples, but today I have the courage, the bandwidth and compassion to turn towards these realities so that they no longer fester in my heart. I no longer have what society says: “Have a chip on my shoulder.” And society was wrong; I didn’t have a chip on my shoulder, I just had a truckload of dung flung onto me by historical, institutional, political and personal racism and abuses.

Your book is a fitting homage to James Baldwin and his transcendental vision. In the poem “Yaata’s Groan,” the speaker says, “The past is in this present moment.” Could you share something about what it means to live in the present?

What we do in this moment impacts the next moment to come. For example, if I shout at my partner and tell them what an awful person they are, it will impact the present. My partner will hang onto the past in the present. Similarly, if I tell my partner I love you and give them a big hug, my partner will be impacted by my wordswhich are now the pastand yet they benefit from the past. So we must always be aware of what we do in the past, because it impacts the present. If we look at the enslaved people of Africa, the past is still in the present. The colonizer is just trying to enslave us in different ways, like in the prison and mental health systems. 

You advocate a planetary ethos in your poetry, attesting to the interconnectedness between humans and earth, especially in the poems on Yaata, the Supreme Being of the Indigenous Kono of Sierra Leone. To what extent can poetry help us to reimagine the kind of future about which we are being forewarned?  

Poetry may not change the world, but it has the capacity to change and transform the individual. I believe that social justice poetry can help raise the consciousness of people in powerful positions who can affect change in their organizations. Which in turn can help change the world. Every action helps. Again, what we do in the present swiftly becomes the pastand impacts the next moment.

Why did you choose to write the poems on Yaata in a form that eschews western poetic conventions? What does it mean for you to write some poetry in Creole, for instance, in “The Ghost of Thomas Peters” and “The Windrush”?  

All poetry once was for the stage; it was a form of storytelling, in all cultures. One day somebody decides to put it in a book, and then the book becomes more important than the poet. I say I don’t eschew western poetic conventions; I add to them. In this collection, I write in poetic forms like the sonnet, villanelles, couplets. As Black British, or African Canadian or African American we are bilingualit’s just that our vernaculars are not recognized. 

While I Am Still Your Negro highlights the pervasiveness of the Hungry Ghosts, such as avarice, addiction, hate, fearmongers, etc., in contemporary society, it urges us towards self-love and self-affirmation. How would marginal groups and communities attain this “inner landscape” that the speaker evokes in “Yaata’s Rap,” given the reality of these Hungry Ghosts?

We feed our demons, and we must feed the hungry ghost within us with self-love and self-affirmation. And the Hungry Ghosts that continue to ravish our lands, we must first starve them by not colluding with them by our own internal racism. This will destroy the Hungry Ghost.

Lastly, the poem “Man-ifestation” reminds me of the video “Killing Us Softly 4,” where Jean Kilbourne criticizes the objectification of the female body in popular western media, particularly in advertising. Could you speak more about the connections you were attempting to make in that poem?

As Kilbourne says, she has been talking about this theme for 40 years, and it has got worse. As a gender fluid woman, non-binary woman, I do not subscribe to what society says a she should be, or a her should be. The social construct of women defines femininity as something which is subordinate and promotes violence against women. In fact, sometimes I think I should define as a trans woman and create my own version of woman. In this whole section of ME TOO, I talk about some of the things we are plagued by to become the perfect woman. Sexual abuse, Disordered Eating and a whole narrative poem called “METOO!” Violence against all women, cis gender women, transgender women, non-binary women, gender fluid women is a human rights issue. In 2021, we have seen more protests about the murders of women around the world, including India and the UK. As I write now, my heart bleeds as women in Afghanistan are being dictated to about how a woman should live and be in society. This section in I Am Still Your Negro is breaking the legacy of white slender beauty myth in the white west. “Man-ifestations” is a poem that explicitly talks to how men have tried to project their illusion of women. This poem is bringing this illusion to light; hopefully, as all women, we begin to destroy it.

Uche Peter Umezurike is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Calgary. An alumnus of the International Writing Program (USA), Umezurike is a co-editor of Wreaths for Wayfarers, an anthology of poems. He is the author of Double Wahala, Double Trouble (Griots Lounge Publishing, 2021) and the children’s book Wish Maker (Masobe Books, 2021).

I Am Still Your Negro: An Homage to James Baldwin

Valerie Mason-John (CA)

Published: Jan 31, 2020 by The University of Alberta Press
ISBN: 9781772125108
Double Wahala, Double Trouble

Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike (CA)

Published: Nov 26, 2021 by Griots Lounge Publishing Canada
ISBN: 9781777688400