Believing Is Doing:
An Interview with Ewuare Osayande
Daringly outspoken, Osayande draws our attention to such societal ills with poetry, using it as a compelling medium to encourage critical thought and honest reflections on everything that has to do with diamonds in Southern Africa to Hurricane Katrina to Jay-Z’s rap lyrics. But his message is to all, not only the black youth of America to whom he addresses much regarding educating self and respecting women, but also to all Americans, both white and black, whom he wishes to further educate on racism and its continued existence in many aspects of society.
In Osayande’s political and poetic work, there is a loud call to know honestly; there is a deep and urgent motioning toward the need for collective progress, and most of all, an emphasis on action. Educate yourself, know, and do accordingly, he seems to be saying in his poetry and his political activism. Herein, I think, lies Osayande’s primary challenge to those who read his poetry and hear him speak at lectures and readings.
Last summer, I drove to the Rutgers’s campus in Camden to hear Osayande give a reading. I had never been to Camden before, and once there, I found myself lost, driving down some pretty desolate streets, some of which had what looked like heaps of trash at the end of them. For a moment that day, I recalled the chaotic streets of Lagos, Nigeria, which I had visited many years ago and my mind made the curious link between what I saw that day on the streets in Camden and the ones in overcrowded, destitute parts of Lagos. This, I realized, is what real poverty looks like in America.
Finally, I found the hall where the reading was scheduled to take place and Osayande smiled gently at the top of the stairs, exuding a strong, inner calm and healthy glow and confidence. How does one arrive at such warm composure and palpable health after what was probably a challenging life as a black man growing up in America, after what I just saw that day driving through parts of Camden?
As the event began and Osayande read from his published work, Blood Luxury, I smiled to myself because I thought I knew the answer to my questionat least a small part of it: Osayande had taken the time to educate himself; he knew; and he was doing. This had lit the fire beneath his activist life and given creative force to his poetry. It was simple: He was living proof of what he believed in. Now if only the young, cool-looking, black students at the reading would see this. And if we all could just see it too.
Your poetry engages the history of African Americans boldly and with a strong emphasis on some painful and difficult moments like slavery and the Amadou Diallo shooting in NYC. Tell me a little bit about how you came to write about these specific topics and how you feel people react to reading or hearing about them?
As an African American the experience of the enslavement of African people in this country and the legacy of oppression that continue to this day are at the heart of my self-expression. I write to explain and to help create understanding. And given the fact that both slavery and the experience of black people in this country are topics that most folk would rather not discuss, I approach my work with a desire to express the painful and difficult in a way that is direct yet sensitive. Poetry enables me to do both; to be both blunt and lyrical. The two need not be at odds.
What are your thoughts on hip hop culture? One of your poems doesn’t cut it a lot of slack at all because of the sexism and materialism it puts out. Do you see any good in it, perhaps as a throwback to what it was back thenthat is, still a potentially viable form of political protest?
Yes, hip hop was once an art form imbued with ideals of democracy and social protest. But sadly, that is no longer the case. Thanks in great part to the racism of the recording industry which has historically viewed black music as mere product, hip hop has become a marketing tool more than a musical form and this generation of American youth suffers for it. In its current state, I do not see anything good in it. Culture is an expression of a people’s self-concept. When that culture is taken by forces that have failed to show any concern for the well-being of the people, then both the culture and self-concept of said people will degenerate. That is what has happened to hip hop culture in my opinion.
I feel poverty is an issue that doesn’t get much attention here in America. But it does elsewhere, across the Atlantic and on the African continent. As an activist that speaks on this issue, what would you want to say about it if you had the chance to reach millions of people in America?
I would direct my thoughts to the poor and encourage them toward education and organization. The church, once a defender and supporter of the poor, nowadays spends much of its time condemning the poor, equating poverty with sin in many cases. I am disgusted by that attitude. It is a very American attitude. Poverty, in truth, is a consequence of a capitalist society that exploits the labor of the poor by paying them far less than what they are worth in its corporate drive for profit.
Our government doesn’t even recognize the poor. Katrina was a big example of that. It took the Bush administration almost an entire week to get necessary food, water, and shelter to those people. Why? In the end, it had everything to do with the fact that they are poor. Oh yes, America is in deep denial. We see the rich and famous talk loud about poverty in Africa (which is not a bad thing), but what is bad is that they do not connect that poverty with the poverty that is experienced in other parts of the world including here in America and England. In fact, these two nations more than any others are responsible for much of the poverty across the planet. I could talk more on this, but in a nutshell, this is just some of what I would say if I ever get the opportunity.
Tell me a bit about your life. Where did you grow up?
I was born in Camden, NJ. My mother and I moved to neighboring Gloucester County when I was five. I grew up in a predominantly working-class, black community where neighbors knew each other and people looked out for each other. We were a small community in the midst of a larger, dominant white suburban community.
You give tribute to Ossie Davis and Gwendolyn Brooks in your collection, Blood Luxury. It is as if you do not want them to be forgotten in your poems, as if they cannot be forgotten because of all that they can teach Americans today. Tell me more about your thoughts on these great figures in African American history and how they have influenced your work as a poet and activist and your life in general.
I have nothing but love and adoration for the likes of Gwendolyn Brooks and Ossie Davis. I stand on their shoulders. Were it not for all they did in their lifetimes, I would not have the opportunity to do what I am doing in mine.. I am indebted to them. And I am aware of that. They not only lived successful lives, they lived lives imbued with a dignity born from knowing that every step we take as black people is and will be scrutinized.
I wish for my work to celebrate them, and in celebrating them, remind those of us who live beyond them to remember the lessons they lived so that we may live principled lives as well. They were artists, yes. But they were more than artists. They were artists who understand the relationship between art and activism. They understood that art is an act of freedom and as artists we are compelled by the very nature of our craft to seek freedom for all who do not have it themselves.
I feel you have had some great women in your life because your poetry engages a deep confidence in women, especially the black woman, and her right to equality and respect from society in general. Can you elaborate more on this and how you choose to deal with it in your poetry?
I am a person committed to principles of justice and self-determination. As such, I walk with a profound awareness that women have as much right to life as I do as a man.
That deep confidence you see in my work comes from a deep and profound respect and appreciation for women who have shaped and influenced me throughout my life starting with my mother. Patriarchy is the primary source for what ails us as men and women in a gendered society. The idea that men should rule and be in control is wrong. Categorically so. From your house to the White House and every house in between, we must work to create a world society in which women are seen and related to as full human beings: subjects of their own destiny, not objects to be used, abused, and demeaned at will.
I have heard you read your poetry a couple of times. You may hum in your poetry--or suddenly include lyrics from a song or a political chant of sorts.. Tell me more about the “performance” aspects of your poetry.
My writing process seeks to incorporate sound, emotion, history, and reality in a way that enables the hearer to better appreciate the point I am trying to make in the piece. Even so, I do not consider myself a performance poet per se and actively resist the notion of black poetry as mere performance. My writing process seeks to strike a balance with the emotional and intellectual.
You have talked about how the title of your latest collection, Blood Luxury, has a direct thematic link to the recently released film, Blood Diamond. Did you see the movie? If so, what are you thoughts on how it portrayed the diamond industry in Africa? Do you think it did so accurately?
Well, I just need to make clear up front that my book, Blood Luxury was written and published an entire year plus before the release of the film, Blood Diamond. The title poem of the book is “Bling-Bling,” which seeks to shed a critical light on the way in which hip hop culture and the black community in general have been positioned to support the destabilization and underdevelopment of Africa and African people. My intent was to educate the black community to the history of the diamond trade in Africa and link that history to the current plight of both continental Africans and African Americans.
I did see the movie. I thought that the film did a decent job addressing the politics of the crisis as it went down in the early nineties. At the same time, I was quite disturbed by the way the film fictionalized the corporate entity that was supporting and profiting directly from the trade in illicit diamonds. In the film that company is called Van Der Kapp. In fact that company is none other than De Beers. The history of De Beers in Africa is one filled with corruption and exploitation. The history of De Beers in Africa is the history of colonialism itself. Complete with all the barbarity that that experience wrought.
There seems to be a strong emphasis on the belief that “Knowledge is Power” running through your workas if you want African Americans to educate themselves about their history so that they can continue to overcome societal ills. Is this an accurate conclusion?
It is accurate in the sense that I believe that an educated community is an empowered community. And please understand that I am not seeking to only educate African Americans. White Americans as well as Latino, Asian, and Native Americans need to be educated too. Our story as African Americans is part and parcel of the American story. I am simply trying to make a critical contribution to that story with full knowledge that there is a reason why our story is not known to ourselves as well as to the rest of the country. The reason being that the truth of our story turns America from an ideal into a contradiction. What America tells itself about itself is a lie told for so long that we have come to accept it as truth. We suffer from lack of knowledge. This country suffers from lack of knowledge.