I want to suggest this: that the majority for which everyone is seeking, which must reassess and release us from our past and deal with the present and create standards worthy of what a man may be – that majority is you. No one else can do it. The world is before you and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in. — James Baldwin, 1961
I think that poetry is a vehicle for stopping time, and for examining what’s going on around you and what can be done to fix it. — Haviland Whiting, 2018 Youth Poet Laureate, Nashville, TN
As we reflect on the overwhelmingly necessary, demonstration-led world-wide support of the Black Lives Matter movement and the horrifying incidents that have forced so many to acknowledge profound, systemic racism in the U.S., we’ve been remembering May of 2018 when we attended the premiere of Mississippi Requiem, a film by executive producer Engaging the Senses Foundation. Based on four William Faulkner short stories, shot in black and white, and made even more powerful by interstitial quotes throughout by James Baldwin, the film is a dark, shocking look at an era of racial inequity which is not as far from our contemporary experience as we often pretend.
We are the strongest nation in the western world, but this is not for the reasons that we think. It is because we have an opportunity which no other nation has of moving beyond the Old World concepts of race and class and caste, and create, finally, what we must have had in mind when we first began speaking of the New World. But the price for this is a long look backward whence we came and an unflinching assessment of the record. — James Baldwin, 1962
In conjunction with the premiere, we were able to secure an interview and two performances with the brilliant then Youth Poet Laureate of Nashville, Haviland N.G. Whiting. She was supported throughout our time together by representatives from Nashville-based Southern Word, which offers writing and music production programs that inspire and engage youth.
Prior to our viewing of the film and a post-film discussion that included Haviland, we traveled to Third Man Records, owned by Jack White of the White Stripes, to film Haviland as she performed a new long poem in the analog recording booth. We also lucked into an unexpected interview with Chet Wiese, poet, musician, and poetry publisher (through Third Man Books, the poetry publishing arm of Third Man Records).
Third Man Books has since published Whiting’s first book, And What Would You Say if You Could?. “The world and its past and present happenings are not always things of beauty,” writes Whiting. “Racism. Sexism. Colorism. Slavery. Violence. Death. Yet, these often-unspeakable things are importantly spoken in the most beautiful but damning words.”
Later that day, we met Haviland on the red carpet for a Hollywood-style interview, where she shared with us that she first came to writing poetry because she was being bullied, and expressing herself through poems was a way to find her inner strength and wholeness. She told us that she will always write and read poetry to find clarity and sustainment, but plans a career in diplomacy. May this powerful young woman fulfill all her dreams in a country we are hoping is on the verge of major change. It’s our job to work towards this together as we release our self-serving, mistaken ideas of a collective reality that has benefitted some at the expense of so many others.
Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or dreamed that one possessed. — James Baldwin, 1956
During our interview with Haviland she explored the ramifications of the film, which starkly and unapologetically depicts misogyny and racial injustice. Two of her favorite James Baldwin quotes, included in the film, were:
— The crime of which you discover slowly you are guilty is not so much that you are aware, which is bad enough, but that other people see that you are and cannot bear to watch it, because it testifies to the fact that they are not. You’re bearing witness helplessly to something which everybody knows and nobody wants to face. (1962)
— I’m not interested in anybody’s guilt. Guilt is a luxury that we can no longer afford. I know you didn’t do it, and I didn’t do it either, but I am responsible for it because I am a man and a citizen of this country and you are responsible for it, for the very same reason. (1985)
During our discussion, Haviland talked about the power of working with words. As we are, she is a great believer in the power of the written and spoken word to help us learn more about ourselves and each other while influencing the shape of the world we are creating together. She told us, “In order to learn more about a group of people and what they’re facing, you must hear directly from that group of people. I think that it’s impossible to go off of the media and mass portrayals of a people. To truly understand their experiences of them, you have to talk to them directly and there’s no better way than to hear it in their own words. And poetry just tends to be such a beautiful way to express that. And in many ways it can be a group’s revolution: a revolution through the written and spoken word.”
She told us that she had, “learned so much about our world through listening to other people’s spoken word poetry that I discovered my love for other cultures and bringing the world together and focusing on the marginalized groups, uplifting them. Poetry is not just for writers. It’s for anyone who wants to become a more global citizen.”
We are listening, and supporting, and working towards active, immediate change with all of you reading this. Let us take our lead from the wisdom of Haviland Whiting and other Black artists who are telling us what we most need to hear about how we can create a world based on justice and equality and compassion for everyone. Black Lives Matter.
“If the word ‘integration’ means anything, this is what it means, that we with love shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it, for this is your home, my friend. Do not be driven from it. Great men have done great things here and will again and we can make America what America must become.— James Baldwin, 1962