BLACK MARKET READS
LISSA JONES WITH JAVON JOHNSON
Recorded April 19, 2021
For Black writers and all their readers and for audiences who are smart and free thinking, Black Market Reads is a series of conversations. Highlighting the Black literary voices of today. Black Market Reads is produced by the Givens foundation for African-American Literature in partnership with iDream.tv.
Welcome to this edition of Black Market Reads. I’m your host Lissa Jones. Today, I’m in conversation with Javon Johnson. His latest work is a collection of poems he titles Ain’t Never Not Been Black.
This in praise for Ain’t Never Not Been Black written by Rudy Francisco, author of Helium “Every so often there’s a piece of literature that arrives and encapsulates the Black experience in a way that gives the reader a new and vibrant perspective of the culture. Ain’t Never Not Been Black is the aforementioned Javon Johnson is one of the most brilliant writers in the world. And this collection of poems is proof of that claim”.
Join me in this edition of Black Market Reads. As we discuss his seminal work, Ain’t Never Not Been Black, fatherhood poetry, justice in resistance with Javon Johnson.
Welcome to Black Market Reads in this episode, I’m with author, poet and man of the hour, Javon Johnson, Javon, welcome to Black Market Reads.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for having me. How are you?
I’m doing mmmm. Well, you know what? Let’s talk about it. I’m doing, how are you doing?
Doing, I understand, the moment is a very, very interesting, interesting moment and I have thoughts on it, but, but, but I’m going, I’m surviving, in some ways thriving in some ways not, but I’m good. I’m okay.
Okay. You know, we’re talking about it, listeners about this whole idea that I’m sitting in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the home, or should I say the latest home of George Floyd? Not too far from where Daunte Wright was just killed by the police in Brooklyn Center and Javon and I are sitting here at a time when it is very likely that the jury will accept the case today against Derek Chauvin and where if you live, where I live, you will see that this place looks like a war zone. It’s almost as if we’re preparing for a verdict that we desperately hope isn’t coming. Right. So let’s talk about that and how you’re feeling, because when I sent you a note on email and said, I’m sorry for circling back late, I’ve been centering on these things. And you said, I’m centering on them too.
Yeah. You know, my thought process is… I don’t know what it’s like to be a Black person in Minneapolis who calls Minneapolis home at this particular moment, the particular wave of, of state sanctioned Black death, this sort of Twin Cities area, has experienced. Right. But I do know what it’s like to be a Black boy in South central. Right. I do know what it’s like to have an overly militarized police presence throughout the bulk of my life. Right, here, we’re talking Dep chief Daryl Gates, LAPD, which is a notorious LAPD, right. He’s, also sort of noted with birthing SWAT. Right. And we could talk about SWAT not getting more guns when you think they might, like, but literally as a kind of response, to the sort of upswell of Black folks saying I would like more rights.
Right., but I say all of that to say, I hear you on the verdict. I think a lot of thoughts, I think a guilty verdict of Derek Chauvin reinforces the system the same way a non-guilty verdict would. Guilt, a non-guilty verdict says that, you know, all right, the state doesn’t care, we did what we did. It’s within the law. It’s within the structures, right? Whether or not you like it is irrelevant, a guilty verdict says, that was not in the law. That was not in the books, but we still get the right to kill you. and either way it goes, it’s troubling for me. I guess what I’m gesturing towards is a world of different possibilities. One in which punitive measures aren’t our social solve for everything. one that doesn’t have prisons, right? One that doesn’t have police.
One that decides less to invest its over militarized police budget into beating and murdering, its citizens, particularly it’s Black and Brown ones. but one that recognizes that investing in parks and recreation and schools investing in infrastructures like mental health care services, like healthcare services, that invest in the social good, is, is a much housing. The ability to live in a home, investing in that kind of thing would do significantly more for public safety than any police department ever. Like I, you know, and I’m not the only one that says this. So, you know, I’ve read this somewhere. It’s not my own thought, but these are thoughts that I agree with. When I say, if funding, the police would have kept us safe. We should have the safest country in the world. By now we fund our police departments in the U S higher than I think everybody else’s military, except for China.
This is incredible. It should be the safest place in the world if indeed we’ve made investments in the right things.
Right. But, but, but even still absolutely correct. But even still like so, people are like, Oh yeah, the police just need more funding, more training, more if that works or we should already be the safest place in the world. If that works, what we’re, what we’re, what you’re telling me is that these measures and methods don’t work and I get it right. I get it. Defunding the police sounds like a scary thing for a lot of people. I’m still, even though I’m completely on board, I’m wrapping my mind around what alternative possibilities might look like. What I am certain is that this mode, this method does not solve. We have to admit that there’s no solvency in this kind of structure. it is a structure that recognizes, or at least not even recognizes, but just kind of passively or blahzay kind of just says people are disposable. And at my core, I don’t believe people are disposable.
I think that’s fundamental. In fact, we’re speaking to you as a poet and yet you are a professor and if people are listening with discernment, there is a beautiful voice behind you. That’s your daughter.
Yes. So the thing about her is, my wife and I realized very early on while she was in the womb that she actually loves when I talk. So, you know, the tough part about this and it has almost got really emotional, the tough part about this is that she was a pandemic baby. Right. she was literally born in, the end of July of last year. So the tough part about it is I’m going to go around about way of saying this is, she was born and didn’t get to meet her village. And our village hasn’t really been able to meet her. And that’s hard for me. Right. Because as somebody who’s really close to his family, right? Like I’m somebody who just apps. I like, I absolutely adore my family, my nieces and nephews FaceTime me multiple times throughout the day.
And if I’m not busy, I’ll pick up. And if I am busy, I’ll call them back. They all know this, right. I just, I’m really close to my family. And so that hurts me. That hurts me a great deal. Both the family that I’m born into, but also the family that I choose. Right. and that, that’s tough. The tough part about it is, is that my wife experienced her entire entire pregnancy in the pandemic, not the entire part, but really when we started to tell people of the pregnancy, right. Um, that, that sort of thing, that most people don’t wait till the second trimester kind of thing. And so my wife spent her entire pregnancy in pandemic, and a part of me wants to pause and say, there’s a beautiful intimacy in that, right. That we’ve been able to create this really tight, really intimate unit of three people that get to see and spend time with each other, every waking minute.
Every that there’s a beauty in that, that, that I really love. but another part of me is like, ah, but I, I want more people around. I want her to meet her people kind of thing. But independent of that stuff, the other part of that is, you know, in the height of my wife’s pregnancy was the height of social unrest. And here we’re going to come back to George Floyd. We’re going to come back to the murderer that is Derek Chauvin. Right. And there was a lot of stuff going through my mind, but, but I kept being invited to do these talks, to do these interviews as many Black poets and professors were at that particular moment. And I say that to say, every time I jumped on a zoom and I got to talk, she, she kicked. And so now when we, when I zoom talk, she feels the need to, to, to, to talk and to yell. And she has like, you can’t see her right now, but she has her hands going. She’s looking at me with her hands going. And so we’re, we’re, we’re, we’re, we’re always in conversation in that way. And so the, the pandemic baby was sort of a mixed bag in a lot of ways for me. Right. Um, but yeah, but she’s here.
I’m glad she’s here. Albeit, she had to come through a pandemic. She’s going to be able to endure. That’s going to be, that will be good for her. And she’s signifying and testifying she’s cosigning she says “yeah Papa, teach, preach.
Well, she might be like, ah, think about it differently. Right. Here’s the weird part. Right? Like I was telling people, I just did this podcast for like fathers and they wanted the Black fathers and they wanted a new father. And so I was in there and I was like, I want her to challenge me. And I know that sounds like tough for a lot of people to hear, like what, like, I want to, yes. Mamas, I want an assertive as she lives in the background, I want an assertive child that goes no. Like, I want her to try to like expose. So even if she was like, I think about it differently, let’s talk that through. Let’s figure it out together. But yeah.
You know what? I’m going to come back if God willing and the Creek don’t rise, I’m going to interview when she’s 13.
No, it’s going to be tough. I’m not saying it’s not going to be a tough, a tough, tough thing. What I am saying is, you know, I didn’t, I don’t think I got into parenting to think that it was going to be an easy job. Right. I never sort of assume that. Right. Like, I, I kind of assumed that there will be tough moments and that we’ll grow in this together. Right. and that, you know, maybe my thinking about this might change in the future. Who knows? Right. Because every, every day she sort of alters me. She shifts me, in some of the most profound ways possible. I’m a significantly just emotional person. Right. Like I have never had, like, I could cry at the drop of a hat now. And I’ve never been that kind of person. Right. I’m not like that kind of emotion. My emotion came out in different kinds of ways. But like, she just, she, she is broken me open in all the ways necessary. And so, you know, I always say, you know, I’m open to seeing where we go with this. you know, cause everybody does like me. I did my best parenting before I had a child. Yeah.
You know what? That’s really wise counsel.
I did my best parenting.
Mine too. Mine was fabulous before I had kids. Man, you are a smart man.
I was on point. Like you could tell me nothing before now I call people, you know, I’m confused.
What is happening here?
But no, she’s, she’s been, I will say this too. She’s been a phenomenal baby though. In a lot of respects. Like I’m just, I, I, somebody had asked me about her and they were funny. Cause I learned how he showed up. Oh man. She’s, she’s amazing. Like I don’t, I don’t know what else to say anymore. Yes. So like she’s not giving us much problems in terms of sleep, in terms of like, being like a, what do they like the colic, she’s not a crier. she has two modes. She’s either laughy, jokey or she’s screaming because she’s hungry. Those are the kind of it. And she’s, other than that, she’s been phenomenal. So I am counting my lucky stars and, and thinking that a, she chose me, not even a, that she chose us and chose me to be her father.
Well, that’s beautiful. She’s teaching you. And now I want to ask you professor to teach us. Would you do us the favor of reading your piece? Black 201
Black 201. The title of the course is: Thoughts on survival: Meeting all day Errr day, professor Javon L Johnson. Semester all, office hours by appointment only. office phone non-applicable office locations Zora Neil Hurston Hall, 241, email J. Johnson at James Baldwin(dot) EDU Course description: When the white man at the breakfast bar starts rapping. I’m going, going back back to Cali Cali, because after small talk, you told him you’re on your way home to California. You wonder if he does this to other white people, your Black experience tells you. He likely does not. You pray. He stops talking. He does not. You want to check him, but you are certain being the only Black guy in the room full of white people, checking the well-meaning white guy would likely get you labeled angry, hostile anti white, whatever that means crazy. As if racism isn’t a thing you decide to swallow this foolishness to let it die somewhere deep inside of you.
This is all so unhealthy. This is all so Black. This is also a lesson in survival. Required texts. Michelle Alexander, the New Jim Crow, James Baldwin Notes of a Native Son. Beyonce’s Lemonade. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Audre Lord’s Sister Outsiders, Public enemies. It takes a nation of millions to hold us back. And Nina Simone, every song she’s ever sung, Touree the portable Promised Land and a bunch of other really Black shit. Methods of evaluations. Last course requirements be Black, be real Black, be all kinds of Black. Course schedule. This course will be mad fluid. This course operates on CPT. This is also a lesson in survival, Black.
Thank you. You know, I don’t know a Black person who can’t identify with the feeling of a white person saying something out of pocket and you having to assess what’s my response. How safe am I to respond for real? And particularly in this time and context, when Black life is ever fragile, when our proximity to white people still means danger even 400 years later, what possessed you to put this in the form of a syllabus?
Um, teaching, right? That I, that I teach. I’m not necessarily a formally trained poet, but I like to play around. Right. Like part of, part of why I write is because I really liked to play around with words. Right. and one of the things that happens in my own syllabus when I teach is that they are there. They’re not always traditional. I don’t teach, like for example, I give you what I mean by that in a more practical sense. It’s like, you know, I had a course called Performances of Blackness. and our midterm was to create a game. Like they came in, create games, we had rules, they had to show the class how to play it. We played it, each game. And that’s how we assessed what the working function and other games are.
And the game had to make use of some of the theories that we’re reading in class. So I’m saying, I play around a lot in my own classes. Right. Because for me, like the education process is one like we’re engaging in conversation. I’m not always invested in the traditional modes of I am the all-knowing teacher. Let me lecture though. I think there are some moments I do have to lecture. What I’m invested in is us sitting here sharing and challenging each other’s ideas and, and how that looks like. And so in order for me to get at that, a lot of times what happens is I’m playing around with assignments. I’m playing around with the syllabus. Like one class I taught this was post the heinous murder of Mike Brown, Darren Wilson, right? in which I taught a class on, Black art and the day of the class, literally the first day, they were like, why didn’t you tell us what books that we had to read?
I said, don’t worry about that. Cause I never submitted a Booklist to the bookstore. And I go, um, the only thing that we’ll require to read today is this essay. We read a couple of essays, and then I asked them, what is the role of the artist in a political moment? And depending on their answer, we had two syllabus to choose from. And so they all felt that the artist’s role in that political moment is to respond creatively, to imagine alternative futures and alternative worlds to creatively, think about this contemporary moment and how we might be. And so I gave them the syllabus that was all about creating political art in this particular, in that Black lives matter moment that, that year, which I believe was 2015, don’t quote me on that. and so we work from a lot of stuff and we created art that responded and we publicly produced that art, we were on campus, making people uncomfortable, as I think artists know to do so.
So I say that to say, if I do that in my classes, then I think it would be absurd if I didn’t try some of that in my poems, what does it mean to bring academia into this? And how could I do that? But then also it was academia. The way I move in it, I always say I’m moved through my academic job, hella Black. I am Black at all. Like, I don’t know how, but the title of the book proves I’m Black at all times. like I might teach in this t-shirt and some sneakers.
With a backpack on and a snapback, like I’m me, I am me, it’s like, the lecture is going to be the same. The discourse is going to be the same. and so I wanted to try my best to reflect, like, what does, like hell a Black teaching looks like on the page. Right. If that makes any sense. So, that’s what sort of inspired it. I think about like a radical creative sort of space in the university in which I have my folks teaching in departments with me, what would that look like? What would that feel like? What would that sound like? You know, what is a class like? You know, what is a class in hip hop look like? Except for listening to a lot of rap. Like, I remember teaching Introduction to Hip Hop. We had one book. We listened to mad albums. The good amount of our time was debating albums, right? That the book helped us track sort of histories and politics of hip hop and debates in hip hop. But a lot of what I wanted to do is just sit there and debate it. I wanted students to bring in good albums.
They brought in what they thought was good albums. And they thought I was funny. Cause like I remember one student brought in this album and halfway through, I was like, man, this ain’t it. This is not it. You get an F for the day for this album, but you know, I’m joking with him about the grade, but this is how we engage each other. Right? Like the other thing I’ll say is I try to create Black-ass classrooms. Like I said this in one of these sort of, one of my interviews, for this current job, I’m at. I say, look, I’m going to create a Black-ass classroom. Or, if I’m going to teach in Black Studies, I’m going to create Black-ass classrooms. And what I mean by that is I think there’s a way in which Black people communicate, right?
It’s certainly not all, but how we are cultured into communicating. And a lot of it is loud. A lot of it is boisterous and we laugh and we tell each other, we don’t know what we are talking about, but we love right. And we love hard. And a lot of ways, certainly that isn’t every Black person, but that is a Black form of communication. My classrooms are structured that way. My debates are loud. We joke, we laugh at each other. And I remember distinctly, I had one white student. This was at UNL V tell me, she told me she doesn’t feel comfortable with speaking up in the classroom. And I told her welcome. And I said, you can take this as an opportunity to understand how others might feel frequently in their own classrooms. Or you can try to get us to focus on your whiteness again, which one would you choose? So like, this is how I move through the university. And so I tried to reflect some of that on the page.
Well, you do reflect it on the page and because our listeners can’t see you, he is smiling broadly. His daughter is cheering him on signifying and testifying in the background, his t-shirt by the way, which he refers to says “Black Joy”. And as we prepare to go to break, you’re going to hear a piece from him at button poetry recorded here in Minneapolis, titled Black and Happy. We’ll be right back. This is Javon Johnson.
On the night they decided not to indict Darren Wilson for the cold-blooded murder of Mike Brown, my body, a well-framed riot chose not to protest. Instead like any good choir director I shut down everything and I demanded a better harmony. The protest were in a part of Oakland I walked to near every day, but on that night I closed my windows because I could not deal with another choir lifting the rafters about more Black death. I did not want to feel sad or angry. I didn’t want white supremacy to tell me how to feel yet. Once again, that night, I cut off all my lights because Black was the only God I knew worth praying to. Asked if Jesus was a Black woman, said that the only Black people I know who could turn that small amount of food into feast, are big mama’s, We laugh. We joke. We talked about bones and spades about how all the old Black men I know who smoke menthols, know how to fix carburetors. We marveled at how creative Black kids are that they must be this world ain’t never been saved. So they build new ones out of scrap paper, bones and possibilities that night I did on beat, which is to say, I chose to be happy and Black
And how political that choice was, how political that choice always is. The first time I ever saw a man shot to death, his arms flailing wildly, like he was dancing for a God. He knew he was about to see what an unholy prayer his body was. Arms were all in the wrong direction, but this poem cannot be about Black death. It is about how on that night we listened to Tupac. We tried to imagine heaven’s ghetto. Corner store is draped in gold, little girls playing double Dutch and him still dancing. The following morning, I called my mother because Black is still the only God I know worth praying to. I wanted her to know her baby boy was still Black and still alive. And her politicalr phone calls or how political my phone calls of my mother always will be. But this poem can not be about politics, cannot be about so-called Black on Black crime, cannot be about police brutality, but state sanctioned Black death.
This poem has to be about Black joy. It has to be about fish, fries and cookouts. It has to be about a place where all the little Black kids know all the dances, even before they come out. It is about how in some days the most revolutionary thing I can do is enjoy my nieces, laughter of their Brown faces bubble like good fried bologna sandwiches. And ain’t that like the Blackest shit ever. Y’all this poem, this poem. This poem is about how, when my brother came home from a tour in Iraq, the first thing we did was make fun of each other. We laugh. Then we said, I love you. It is about how, when Tamir Rice was gunned down, a Black people band together to lift his mother out of the homeless shelter she had been living in. It was about how, when my aunt laid there on her deathbed, waiting for the cancer to try and make a liar out of her own body, she sat there and cracked jokes. You cannot kill Blackness too much of it is wrapped in unshakeable, joy and ain’t that why they think we magic in the first place. That despite every reason not to, we still smile. We still laugh. We still love. We still Black y’’all. We still.
Thank you. Thank you.
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Welcome back to this episode of Black market reeds. I’m your host Lissa Jones. You just heard the piece Black and Happy from poet Javon Johnson from his collection of poems titled Ain’t Never Not Been Black. We are talking about everything, Black, including Black in the classroom, Black and poetry, Black as a movement. He indeed is a movement. Welcome back, Javon. Thank you so much for your time.
Thank you. Thank you for having me. Thank you. Good to be back.
I’m delighted. You know, I’m really applauding you for centering on Black joy in that last piece. And at the same time, we hold more than two things to be true. Let’s talk about the murder of Black children. The piece you’ve written on the page, I had to stop several times before I could finish. What compelled you to write that? And what compelled you to write it in the way you wrote it with the repetition?
Yeah, like I was actually having this conversation with a friend of mine. I asked them, two friends. They’re also writers. They’re also Black poets. One, I think recently won the Ruth Lilly Award, Darrius Simpson and, Imani Cezanne, wonderful people who I converse with on a regular basis, who I love dearly. And I asked them, I said, you know, what happens to the writer? When the words don’t feel like they have the utility anymore. Right? And we were just kind of having this conversation and there are moments of state sanctioned Black death. When I don’t feel the words have utility. When, if I’m just being utterly honest that I want to go outside and break shit for lack of a better way of putting it.. And I remember posting this and I forget, this is how sad this is. That I’m about to say this. I forget who was murdered when I posted this.
And I remember going outside and I intentionally wanted someone white to say something to me. I intentionally wanted to punch someone in the mouth. Right. I just, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to write a poem. I didn’t want to be an artist. I didn’t want to be a professor. I didn’t want to be anything other than what I was, which was angry, which was fed up, which was somebody who wanted blood, but I don’t want to live like that. Right. And so it’s what I struggle with. Right? Like, I’ll be honest. I completely struggled with this because I’ve written elsewhere that I pray for peace with the same mouth that I hide the razor blade in, that I want peace. I desperately want to live in a world with peace. I desperately want to live now as if I live in a world full of peace to model the kind of world that I want to live in. But what I, what I’m ultimately articulating is sometimes I don’t know how to do that. Sometimes I’m lost. Sometimes I’m confused, I’m human, like everyone else. Right.
And, and, and so in that moment, I didn’t have anything other than just, I don’t want this. I didn’t, I didn’t want to be a poet. I wanted to be angry. I wanted to fight. I wanted to hurt someone. I’ll be honest about that. I wanted to break someone wide open and I have these moments. Right. And I remember just coming back home and just saying, but be the kind of person that you want to see in the kind of world that you want to see. Right. That meant coming home and not breaking someone that meant coming home and calming down. That meant. Right. And so I, but I still didn’t have the words. And so it was just a kind of simple proclamation that I didn’t, that wasn’t the number of times that it was written, wasn’t even planned. I just sort of type and stopped when I stopped. And, and so there was nothing else other than I think this poem is a result of the poet who doesn’t feel like the words were enough, who does didn’t feel like the anger would do it, who didn’t feel like much other than just yet, like, even the proclamation didn’t feel enough, right. Like I didn’t know what to do. Right. And I think that’s the result of this.
Let’s talk a little bit about your haikus, brother writing haikus, I dig, A and B, what caused you to use haikus and why on the topic of being famous and why did you split them up that way in the book?
So a couple of things about that. So I come from out of the slam tradition, right. And we often have slam. We often have haiku, battles. And that’s, that’s when I first really learned of haikus. And I know you’ve interviewed folks that have come, like Danez right. Like, I know Danez right. And I know you’ve interviewed folks that come out of this tradition. And so, the other part of it that I must also say is that I’m actually normally a very silly person for the bulk of my life. Right? Like, I’m, hilarious. I’m like, I think I’m one of the the funniest people in the world, I personally think that not everyone thinks that, but I do. And, and so how do I say this? Like, so I’m mostly jokey.
I’m mostly silly. I’m mostly laughy. Like that’s why in the other poem, my niece says, “Uncle. You’re silly. You’re always so silly.” They know me as the silly, lovable, just, I’m going to hug you to pieces. I’m going to kiss you an endless amount of time, to the point that we’re all like, all right, stop. And I’m like, God, but I love you. Right. and so I’m silly, but the other part of me is I also have a problem with celebrity. I think celebrity is weird. I think fame is weird. I’ve always thought this. It’s one of the reasons why I did not try to act, even when people try to urge me into acting, I was like, I could have acted and never became famous. I could have failed at acting, but the point is I think fame is weird, but then I’m sitting there like, but Black theme seems cool to me.
And I think anybody Black knows what I’m talking about. Right. This is one of those things that if you’re Black, you kind of know what he’s talking about. Like, there’s always these celebrities that are not celebrities that anybody else, but Black people, there’s a handful of them. And you’re like, hmm, you may know their names. Sometimes we don’t even know their names. It’s like, God, I do like this dude. Or I hate him. He’s always in stuff. I hate his characters. Right. Like I think Clifton Powell, like I think about Clifton, right? Like I love, I love, I hate his characters too, but I love Clifton Powell. He’s Black famous. Right? I don’t think a lot of white people know who Clifton Powell is and this guy, I feel bad for blasting him out right now. But, my point is made clear.
And he might not even be the best example, but there’s othes like, so it was, it was that kind of stuff. So it’s the silliness, it’s the slammer at haiku. It’s the me having issue with fame. It is me also the him Black fame is kind of interesting. Like, so if I tomorrow became a famous writer, you know, and people actually knew my face, I would be weird. Like I don’t want to go to the grocery store. And like, people bother me. Like, I came here with my daughter so we can get something to eat for dinner. Like, that’s kind of, it, it’s weird… Like, even after I do shows, I’m unappreciative, I’m incredibly reasonable. Like, I’ll do a show and people want to talk to me and have dinner.
And I’m like, no, I just want to go. I’m not trying to be rude. I think I gave you enough. I want to go home. And I’m this weird introverted extrovert kind of guy that just wants to hermit himself away at times. And so the Black haikus series was an attempt at me trying to be funny, trying to be silly, but also pointing to some issues of fame, but also right. And it’s broken up because I didn’t want them all together. I just kind of wanted you to see, like also the way my mind works, I could talk something serious and then joke out of nowhere and then go right back. Like it’s always how I’ve been. and so that, that’s sort of the best way I could explain that. Like the guy on the barbershop poster, I think about him a lot.
Like it’s like growing up, I used to see these guys at the bar. They used to be in the sand, like the same dude, like, and I kept thinking, growing up, like, you have an agent for this man, like you got a corner on the market. Like, I really thought about how this guy got to be this sort of barbershop model. I was likeI want to talk to this guy. If I could talk to that guy today, I talked to him. I was like, I’m fascinated by that. And he’s just the waves model, that’s amazing. The S-Curl guy, like how much did they pay you? I have. So that’s what that is. That’s what that is.
Well, you know, I can see now by talking with you, just exactly how that properly represents your personality, you will pop with something extremely serious. And two seconds later, you got a haiku and I’m like, what just happened here, but it’s, but you know, in a way it’s like salve for the soul, to be honest, because you center on these very serious, heady, profoundly heart-wrenching issues. And then all of a sudden you can see your playful side, which I think also does what America and white supremacy tries to take away from Black people. And that is to give you your humanity. You keep it.
Mmm. Yeah. And you know, I honestly, I think about it a lot. I, I think I get this from my grandmother, who I’ve referenced at the end of the book, was utterly hilarious. She was also mean, right. Like I remember at her funeral, years ago, again, me being me, the family, you know, being a poet and a professor means that they call me primarily for two occasions, weddings and funerals. Right? Oh, you got to say something. I’m like, ah, I’m grieving too y’all. I don’t want to say anything profound today. But I say all of that to say, everybody got up in my grandmother’s name to, you know, everyone else was Mrs. Cannon. And like, you know, Mrs. Canon was this. And Mrs. Cannon was that, like all my family, friends and talking about how nice she was.
I got up. And I was like, I have no clue who y’all talking about. Mrs. Cannon was mean, if we’re being honest and everybody fell out laughing. I was like, and that’s okay. Right? Like Mrs. Cannon would curse you out. Mrs. Cannon with dah, dah, dah. And I’m telling all the things that my grandmother would do. And then I go, but she would cook you a bowl of chili and tell you to go in there and eat some, she’d ask you how you doing, how your mom and them doing. She would give you $10 when all she had was $15. And I go, and I think this sort of complexity, right? Not to say that my grandmother was perfect by any stretch of the imagination, because I don’t think any of us are, but she held complexities. Right? She held multitudes. She showed me very early on that the people contained, not only complexities and multitudes, but also contradictories.
What does it mean for humans to contain contradictories? What does that say about the capacity of this thing that we are, for us to be able to hold contradictories sometimes as if they are not, sometimes admitting, they are and continually moving. Right? And then how do we make sense of that? I also don’t think silliness is separate from seriousness, right? I think silliness is a serious engagement when done properly. Right? I think I’m gonna take a step back. I wrote an article, not recently years ago about protests post the murder of Trayvon Martin. And I remember going back to LA and I kept saying, what animated us in this piece? Nope. Actually this was post Mike Brown too. Cause it’s called Black Joy In the Time of Ferguson. and I wrote this essay. It’s a short academic piece. And, I talk about it really quickly. And what I’d say in this essay is really simply put, is I remember being at this protest. And so much of it was Black people hugging each other, recognizing each other in the streets, loving each other, smiling like, Oh, you here. And it was at that moment that, you know, really dawned on me that it’s Black joy. That gets us through a lot.
Which for me, isn’t separate than struggle, which isn’t separate than protests, which isn’t separate than any, all of those stuffs can happen and will, and should happen. Black joy gets us through a lot. Black joy is that moment of the protest, but it’s also rent parties, right? The Black folks know all too well. It’s also cookouts and fish fries again, where all the Black kids know the dances before they come out like, hi, hi, everybody knows like, like it’s that it gets us through so much. And I’m not saying it’s the song I am saying it is a tool, right. A tool. And so, so it’s, it’s all of that. But yeah,
It’s like salve in some ways. I think that ultimately that’s what can’t be killed is our joy. Our peopleness our peoplehood our whoness, you know, that’s what you can’t, you can’t kill it.
Black Twitter consistently amazes me if their ability to make fun of stuff that I’m just like, and it’s funny then sometimes I’m like, I shouldn’t be laughing at this. I have no business laughing at this, but it’s funny. Like, I think back, when was it, I forget what newspaper, but it hit the AP wire. Um, they said “a nigger Navy”. They meant a bigger Navy. That was one of the funniest days, I cried. I literally was in tears. Me and my friends, we were sending each other tweets like, Oh my God, how can Black people take this? This is a very likely some kind of slippage. Right? But then we have the question, how can slippage happen in such a way we can get into that. And should, but we still took that. And our critique was the joke. And I thought to myself, how beautiful are we? How amazing are we? Right. Yeah. I can keep going on. But I stopped.
I wish we didn’t have to stop. You have a baby at home. and we’re on a podcast. Would you do me a favor and choose one of your, one of your, well, I shouldn’t say your favorites cause they’re all your babies. Choose one of the poems you want us to hear you read.
Yes. I’m going to do this one. I end up always reading this one, But I’m going to do it because I like it. Called Unlearning Freedom.
The first time I slow dance with a girl was at a backyard party in South Central. It was a sweaty night and the air was too thick for anything but a slow song. I wore my flyest silk shirt, a thin gold chain, that danced around my neck as if it understood the music more than I did. I had a cup full of Hawaiian punch and seven up in my right hand, my back was up against the wall. I was watching all those Black kids learning how to get free, quiet as kept. I was always afraid of dancing of girls just then as SWV’s “Weak” came on and Tasha yelled. This is my song as if she wrote it. And to this day, I still want to believe her Tasha, a dark skin, Black girl who wore thick scrunchies, socks, air brushed t-shirts and hoops who kept her ponytail to the right side of her head. A few weeks earlier, Oatmeal told me that Tasha liked me and I came to the party to show her how cool I was. Our friends forced us together. And as she swayed her hips, Oatmeal grabbed me and made me move mine. He whispered in my ear, you got this. Once everyone stopped watching me fumbling my way through a song, Tasha told me to keep my hands around her hips. She held me and carefully taught me how to feel the beat, how to feel the rhythm, you know, how to move.
And, and what’s, what’s, what’s really interesting for me about that piece is not just Tasha, right? It’s the intimacy of Oatmeal, him holding me. Right? Like we don’t, we don’t think of, we don’t think of Black male intimacies, straight Black male intimacies often. And these were two hoods South central boys and oatmeal grabbed me by my hips, Oatmeal. Who’s no longer alive. Who was the quarterback to the football team. I played on who I’ve known for as long as I can remember, he was murdered in the streets. Oatmeal grabbed me by my hips. So I think about the poem fondly because of that too. Right. It makes me think of Oatmeal. It makes me smile. His real name was Stanley. Right. and, and Stanley grabbed me by my hips, two straight Black boys from South central. He said, I got you. And that intimacy in that moment alone was also important for the poem, but then Tasha then carrying the piece further.
Important, for me, I think in that piece, I can tell you exactly where the backyard party was to this day. I can tell you it was off of Vernon Avenue, just across the street from Ascot Elementary. it was an apartment building. They have this little lot in the back and they moved all the cars out and we went back there and it was just good times. And you would do it in those spaces, in the back that way in case of drive-bys, you’re then shielded off. And so, all of this stuff is in the backdrop that doesn’t make it. And so, the last piece about it is the learning to move as a kind of freedom. That line is really, I think, animated for me by Fred Moten, writer, professor, brilliant.
JAVON: You know, every time I listened to Fred, I’m like, what, how do you, how do you do it right. A poet, right? Critic. Right. Extraordinary. I think he’s just utterly, amazingly brilliant. And he talks about Afro-fugitivity. And so I’m thinking about Afro-fugitivity and movement, but I’m also thinking about not movement. Writ large is moving from one space to another, but movement. And the ways in which Black people are free and dance is just that, that for me, it becomes, yeah, even my brother who has no rhythm, he gets free when he dances and he can’t dance to save his life, but…
He’s free one way or the other. When he gets to dance,
We all love it. And no one could play and be like, look, he’s going to go over there and do that terrible dance and that’s it..
But at least he’s free. This is Black Market Reads. Our guest is Javon Johnson. You could call him professor, you call him poet. You can call him Papa. You can call him anything that’s good, because he’s brilliant. Javon, as we begin to wrap it up, what are you reading?
Um, right now I just picked up Social Poetics. I’m in the middle of reading A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None. in which it’s forcing me to sort of rethink, I’m at this place now where I’m sort of rethinking a lot of stuff, including like, I’m thinking about gentrification, but rethinking it, like, what does it mean to claim ownership to a land that was stolen, to appeal to whiteness, to not gentrify a Black neighborhood when whiteness does not have, the power to grant the land they stole to begin with. I have to contend with that, right? Like what is Blacknesses relationship to gentrification on stolen land and to the indigenous population who live here. Right? I am thinking about that at the moment and reading that book. It’s a short book, but it’s a dense read.
What else do I have on my shelf? Oh, I need to finish Ernest Gibson’s Salvific, Manhood. he’s a Baldwinist. He’s at Auburn right now and just a brilliant, brilliant, brother there. I mean, I’ve got… so, I’m weird in that I’ll be reading like four and five and sometimes six and seven books at once. Cause I can’t really read through one. The other thing that I’m reading through, is, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson Becoming Human, in which, you know, a lot of Black scholars at this moment are questioning sort of the role of humanity, right? Like humanity as a kind of Eurocentric product. And what Zakiyyah Iman Jackson is doing in this book, I’m somewhere in the middle of it, and she’s arguing that many Black artists are ill concerned with trying to achieve human status altogether.
If Black people were the animal on part, the animal by which a Black, whiteness gets, defined as, then it means the ways in which human is constructed, that perhaps Black folks will never be able to attain human status in that kind of respect. And so in that respect then do we, do, we do away with the desire to gain human status and many Black artists have done this. And so Zakiyyah Iman Jackson is looking at this through literature and I know this well more so through music, right? Like parliament Funkadelic was ill concerned with being human. Right. L’il Wayne said, we are not the same. I am a Martian. Right. Kanye West asked for a slave ship so that he could leave. I mean, we have a history of Black art looking for other places to be fugitives, to go back to Moten. So I’m, I’m reading all of those and probably some others that I’m not thinking of right now. but yeah, I have like, I’m looking at that stack right there, and then I’m looking at a stack over here. And so yeah, like I can try to read like about seven books at a time. I like to read a chapter, put it down and pick up another book. I have a hard time just going through one book,
You know, I must agree. I think that that is excellent advice. I, too, read a chapter at a time and six and seven books at a time, what I’m going to say is I have had a marvelous time on this podcast. I’m so glad to know you, Javon. Thank you. It’s been such a lovely time, to see you so dedicated to your daughter and your family is marvelous. And I want to tell people on this podcast, I got to talk to Javon Johnson. You’re going to hear a lot more about this marvelous man, but he is the man who first imagined James Baldwin university. And all I want to know is when he opens it, can I be in his class? [laughs] Is that fair Javon? You gonna let me in.
I’m gonna let smarter people open it than I am. I just, I just want a job. That’s it. I just want a job. And so you, you show, ok, come through.
Well, if you can find anybody smarter than you, I’d be hard pressed to do it. You take care of yourself. Javon. Thank you. Take care too. Thank you. Javon. You take care of yourself and good luck to your family .
That was Javon Johnson. I Ain’t Never Not Been Black. He is a father, a poet, and professor. He is modeling fatherhood for his beautiful daughter, teaching, but she’s responding, signifying and testifying to what Papa’s saying. Thank you, Papa. Thank you, baby girl. This is Black Market Reads. I’m Lissa Jones. Goodnight
Black Market Reads is produced by the Givens Foundation for African-American Literature in partnership with iDream.tv. Black Market Reads is made possible through the generous support of our individual donors, the Target Foundation, and the voters of Minnesota through the Minnesota State Arts Board with support from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.