Visiting Fellow Jacqueline Woodson has written a reflection for the Library on her time in Paris so far and her speaking engagements here.
A Moment, Please
In the poem, A Moment, Please, by Samuel Allen (aka Paul Vesey), the poet speaks of going into the subway for ‘change of a dime’ and being confronted by two young women who want to know if he’s “Arabian”. They go through the list of what he could be, having never seen a man of color before. They finally end by asking if he’s the “N” word. The poet uses the word. I can’t. I won’t. Allen was born in 1917 in the same place I was born – Columbus, Ohio. He attended Fisk University – one of the historically Black Universities (HBCU), studied law at Harvard and later, under the GI Bill, studied at the Sorbonne here in Paris. He was first published by Richard Wright – another black man who made his way to France. Allen was a lawyer, a Deputy Assistant District Attorney, a Professor of Humanities, and of course – a poet.
A Moment, Please was one of the first poems I read by Allen in a book called The American Negro Poetry Anthology (edited by Arna Bontemps). I borrowed the book from my neighborhood library when I was very young and still have it today. One of my earliest memories of that time is my mother hauling a shopping cart filled with overdue books back to the library and an envelope of cash to pay for them. The cash was the combined allowances of my siblings and myself. My mother depended heavily on that library for our reading material and she was determined to keep our library cards active. I had hidden that one book under my bed. Not sure if she had to pay for it. In it, there are poems copied in my childish handwriting and poems rewritten by me. One the back, I’ve written A Moment, Please over and over again because I loved the way the words looked together and loved saying that line out loud. A Moment, Please.
A moment, please. As though I’m asking the world to stop – and listen to me.
For many white people in the U.S., the GI Bill, would help begin the growth of wealth – they were able to buy homes in segregated neighborhoods where the property values increased. It’s a long story that pretty much begins with land. Africans-Americans couldn’t use the money to buy houses in these segregated neighborhoods and couldn’t get mortgages in the neighborhoods they were legally allowed to live in because of redlining – the unethical process by which banks deny financing in certain neighborhoods. Generations later, their children would feel the effect of this. There was nothing to pass down.
But what of the people of color like Allen and Wright and Baldwin – the ones who were able to write and speak and study their way through this paradigm? Or were they? And why did they have to go so far away from home to gain the strength to return?
As a child growing up in a religious family, I was taught to ‘be in the world but not of the world’. This duality, this constant code-switching, informs so much of my work. In my few weeks here this spring, I plan to investigate how the writers who came before me dealt with the many worlds they had to exist in to remain sane and whole and productive. These writers have greatly influenced my own work. On 19 April, I plan to talk about where I draw inspiration, how stories come to me, my reasons for telling the tales I tell. And of course, I’m planning to read from my work.
There is a heartbreak that comes with leaving home – with leaving all that you loved behind in order to move forward. Between the early 1900s and the mid-1970s, millions of African-Americans left the cruel conditions of a Jim Crow south for better opportunities for themselves and their families. Movement and resistance is in our blood. I think while in France, this is where I will begin the arc of my narrative. We’ll see where it goes from there.