I met playwright, hip-hop artist, and performer Idris Goodwin in Chicago in 2002. Our friendship and his finesse as a teacher brought him to teach at the high school I started in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago.
A prolific artist whose talents have won him a National Endowment for the Arts grant, Goodwin now lives in Iowa City with his wife, a graduate student in the Department of English at University of Iowa, .
Here Goodwin discusses the problem with Black History Month, teaching, performing, and why he loves his mama.
My mama is the coolest. . . She's the first one on the dance floor.
LA: What do you like to be called?
IG: Do you mean "professionally"? A break beat poet, playwright, hip hop performer, teacher and video artist
LA: Where are you from?
IG: I spent the early part of my youth in Detroit, MI and my adolescent and teen years in a nearby suburb.
LA:Why do you love your mama?
IG: I love my mama because she's both a mentor and a best friend. She's the first one on the dance floor. She cries in church and laughs at all my jokes. My mama is the coolest. My dad is pretty dope as well. Smartest, hardest working guy I know. The second one on the dance floor. I learned to have a diverse breadth of experience from him.
At Steppenwolf theater, one of the more prominent companies in Chicago, the only time you'll see black and brown people on stage is when it's an adaptation of some sort of slave narrative or some story that takes place in the early 1900's, down south somewhere. Meanwhile, there are a slew of new works by middle-aged white, mostly male playwrights. It limits the imagination.
LA: You left Chicago a while ago. You lived there for a minute, no? Why did you move to Chi-Town in the first place?
IG: I lived in Chicago from fall '96 to March 2008 - so just under 12 years. Damn! I came to Chicago because I was 18 going on 19 and desperately wanted to be in a thriving urban setting. Though the proximity to the city of Detroit was only about 40 minutes, there wasn't much going on there. God bless it. It's the place where my grandparents migrated and where my parents and uncles and cousins and we were born and where my church family worships. But whenever we would go there to visit family and friends, all I could focus on was the neglect, vacant houses, crumbling neighborhoods. I knew I wanted to be in a place where there was some energy and life, a creative environment. I wanted to experience real diversity, ethnically, economically, and culturally. New York and L.A. were a little too intimidating for a suburban kid from Michigan by himself, so I picked Chicago. The catalyst was an arts school in the downtown called Columbia College. I enrolled in their film/video and screenwriting program.
LA: Tell me about Chi. Those of us who have lived there know it's a hard place to live with integrity. The City always seems to be pushing folks to step over people. Did the context of Chi's quid pro quo political system and the way it does "bidness" influence the content of your music and plays? If so, in what ways and through which media?
IG: There's a ton of theater and performance opportunities in Chicago. A lot of storefronts and a major "fringe" scene that the city supports financially. I've received support from the city's Department of Cultural Affairs and arts councils and I've been featured in Chicago publications. However, there is still a struggle when it comes to how the art itself takes shape and who is commonly lauded and supported.
There is a certain type of art that is given larger priority than others. Chicago's legacy of patronage and privilege extends to the art world as well. The male, the wealthy, the white that make white art about white issues and white concerns get the big major slots. If you want major support from the City and you're brown, typically what you make must coincide with the goals of its outreach and education programs. For example, all of Chicago's schools are full of brown kids that the white administration can't reach and they think performing arts will reach them. They think that hip hop and spoken word culture is only valid to the kids.
At Steppenwolf theater, one of the more prominent companies in Chicago, the only time you'll see black and brown people on stage is when it's an adaptation of some sort of slave narrative or some story that takes place in the early 1900's, down south somewhere. Meanwhile, there are a slew of new works by middle aged white, mostly male playwrights. It limits the imagination.
One of the reasons I left Chicago is because I found that I had hit a ceiling in terms of my available venues. I was used to working on a low budget in a small space or constrained to the stipulations of an outreach program, so the work had to speak to a particular community. I couldn't just wander the garden and write whatever came to me. I mean, I could have, but the producer in me realizes it's a long term often losing fight to get work produced that doesn't appear to appeal to a mainstream theater-going sensibility, which is predominantly white, middle aged, older, and upper middle class.
No matter if I'm at an under-served school in a war zone neighborhood or an affluent school, I notice that teens don't speak up. They sit quiet. They are terrified to think for themselves or declare their feelings.
IG: Apathetic and cynical adults collectively make an apathetic petty society that produces apathetic kids. I'm more frustrated with the school systems and the society that tells kids one thing and then shows them something opposite.
LA: Why is it that every performance poet in Chi and elsewhere in the U.S. works as a teacher at some point in their career? I remember when I first met you, several years ago, you told me that you didn't really like teaching because you didn't like dealing with any "knuckle-heads." For you, knuckle heads could be students or the adults working with them. So, you were teaching because you had to. The writing and performing wasn't bringing in enough income so you were, in large part, forced to work within the context of public schools.
Later, something changed in you. I remember you writing me and telling me that you loved teaching. At that time, you were working with kids at Roberto Clemente High School under a contract with the not-for-profit After School Matters. I remember the tone of your words back then; a significant change had been made and you had found your passion inside the voices of those kids. That's when you wrote "Wake Up Day" which is on your Kings for the Night CD.
[Click title to listen.]
Wake up Day.mp3
(for the creative writing crew @ Roberto Clemente High School 2006)
The grind can turn the mind into unused playground
These drab lights can dim yours so in class you put ya facedown
The hands that search ya pockets lookin' for objects that could break crowns
But royalty is in ya bones and blood
not supposed to run from love
you are not strange to us
you are not the dangerous
you are the poorly taught and reared
often and fought and often feared
on the court so loved and cheered
off the court you get the sneers
in the fields and in the cell
behind the bars/ and sentinels
must dispel/ you're so much more
you represent what was was before
and whats to come and what will be
but also how we think and teach
but when we reach our hand to you
take whats in it
infinite/ the energy/
power/ the sentiments
toss the rock to you
now you must run with it
inherited/ we do the messes of previous
cracks in the wall for the slimy and devious
they work for you
so tell em what to do
is not a drug filled zoo
and you are not a victim
or in need of penicillin
you are not some liberal fantasy
for grad students to exhibit
The whole city is a library
A whole gallery
A variety of occupations
Uniforms and salaries
And you got a spine
You can travel through
Colored lines to take you through
Every street and avenue
life is guaranteed to challenge you
Unravel and saddle you
Send you in nervous fits
Folks is gonna wanna battle you
Take control/ distract you
Back you into corners
Turn you to solders
sleepin and blind
draggin feet lethargic
suspended in time
in dew rags on porches with poison
kids in each arm that you're raisin alone
chasing shiny bobbles to the bottom of the ocean
but the brightest bling is shinin at the top of your dome
IG: I think making a decent living as a writer is a slow process for most people. Even a lot of famous writers you've heard of take teaching positions at colleges and universities because the money is consistent and they get health insurance.
A ton of writers supplement their income between books, plays, etc., by doing the lecture circuit which is a form of education. The life of a writer/performer is that of patience and persistence. To make the work, then submit the work, then get the work published and/or produced; it takes a long time and there is no guarantee that much money will be there for you.
LA: It seems that back in the day, young African American artists like you, particularly those spitting the kinds of lyrical critiques of education, money (or lack of . . .), race, the war against youth in the U.S. would never have been allowed in schools as they are now in such great numbers, especially in a racially and economically segregated city like Chi.
So, I guess what I'm asking is, why has the school, the educational apparatus become the income savior of performance poets, or rather artists over the last decade? Has the quantity of school always been a source of income for artists or did you think something shifted economically and politically in the U.S. to cause this to be the case?
IG: There is a demand for professional creative writers and performers in the schools. Across the country the Old English poetry and plays are still being drilled into kid's heads mostly to no avail. What better than to have a loud hip-hoppin performer come in and help dispel the notion that poetry is old and confusing and doesn't address the issues of the day.
I think also teachers are younger. They are from a cable TV, internet generation. Teachers are aware of the artistic, educational and social value hip hop, spoken word and other subcultures that appeal to youth. However, what they don't realize is that subcultures like hip hop blossom outside of institutional settings and not all kids respond in the same way.
I still see a lot of same problems and detachment. No matter if I'm at an under-served school in a war zone neighborhood or an affluent school, I notice that teens don't speak up. They sit quiet. They are terrified to think for themselves or declare their feelings.
That's a larger issue that won't be solved by a million poems.
There have always been many day-to-day-put-food-on-the-table-jobs for me and other artists to pursue: bartending, waiting tables, administrative work--there's always work at the post office--but teaching, at least teaching creative writing is a good challenge for me as a writer/performer because it's the ultimate performance for an audience that would rather be elsewhere. I find it to be a healthier environment in which to work than a bar or an office, and I feel I can be of real use.
I never thought of myself as the "dreamy artist needing his space and his hard drugs looking to the stars for inspiration" type. I want to be of some real use because I feel that my skill set has value. The best part is that youth aren't youth forever and if you make a strong impression on them at 16 in a high-school where all day they get the same boring stuff, they'll remember you. You might make life long fans.
I think my initial frustration with teaching came from that fact that it's hard. It can be a real challenge, especially in public schools. I used to get frustrated with kids who were less than enthused with the creative arts. But now I realize that's not their fault. That is the fault of the communities they come from.
American society has a strange shallow love hate relationship with the arts. We are some hard core music-buying, TV-watching, big-summer-movie-going people, but yet when a kid says he or she wants to act or write or draw or make movies, parents say, "pick something more sensible." Who do they think makes all the shows and songs and plays and websites and paintings? There is no knowledge or respect for the vast and various artistic fields and strata. Not every artist will be famous and fame doesn't equate to success or quality. The playing field is much wider than most people think.
Apathetic and cynical adults collectively make an apathetic petty society that produces apathetic kids. I'm more frustrated with the school systems and the society that tells kids one thing and then shows them something opposite.
So I feel that my purpose is to try and get kids excited about anything. To care about something so much that they'd be willing to pursue it with passion. I want them to know they don't have to do and be what people around them are or aren't. I just want them to give a shit about something. So much so that they are willing to sweat and bleed and put themselves in potentially embarrassing and challenging situations. I want them to know that good grades and a college degree don't equal a fruitful life. A letter on a paper doesn't equal real knowledge. Real knowledge is work for everyone and everyone gains it differently.
HBO Def Poetry Jam (Season 6, 2007) | "What is They Feedin Our Kids? " (1:44)
LA: There is a poem you performed on HBO's Def Poetry Jam that you actually wrote for T, a student in the school I started in Chi. Remember her? She was about 14 going on to be a gum-smacking, fast-talking, hand-on-hip woman who would always be smarter than those around her--that girl had street smarts and intellectual smarts, remember?
IG: When I was working at City (City as Classroom School) I noticed the food that the kids were buying and bringing in to the school and I began to think about the correlation between poor lifestyles and poor scholastic performance. And so I wrote this poem:
What is They Feedin Our Kids
What manner of meat
is mechanically separated lips
entrails between pieces of plastic bread
binded by orange luke warm cheese
What is they feedin our kids?
Venessa is 15 years old
Venessa is eating red hot cheetoes
at 10 o'clock in the morning
snapping her bright red fingers
What is they feedin' our kids?
Big white gas station bags
Partially hydrogenated oil
Polluting the coiled intestines
like a scourge
What is a funyon?
Drugs hanging like strange fruit
the vending machine
whispering like a drug dealer
"Real affordable - 65 cents get your mouth hot"
Martisha forgets her lunch
We tell her to have some fruit
She says "I aint no vegetarian"
As if she's ever seen one
At Evanston township high school
they serve veggie burgers in the cafeteria
at Kelvyn park on the northwest side, they get the no child left behind
special tater tots staining their
white t-shirt uniform
What is they feedin our kids?
by noon they're easily riled like hornets
totally unfocused pores
Deep fried arteries
Short term batteries
Tell me, What is they feedin our kids?
LA: If you could talk back to a teacher from where you are in your life right now, what would you say and to whom would you say it?
IG: Mr. Judge was a history teacher and he was the first one in any school to ever inspire me. He was so good at relating information. He was almost like a performer and I don't mean the corny teacher with the goofy tie and goofy raps about the US presidents. He was just very casual and clever. I equated his ease with relating information with deep knowledge. I think I started thinking: Its cool to be smart. Smart people can be funny, clever, unique and interesting, not lame and old and cranky.
The same could be said for a physics teacher I had named Mrs. Dayo. Like Judge, she was just mad cool. Very casual, very clever, very smart.
I would go back and tell both of those teachers that they stood out because they didn't use fear tactics to get us to care. They just worked at all aspects of their teaching. They were creative and non-traditional.
PRODUCTION, PRODUCING, PRODUCTIONS
With every rejection letter I am reminded of why the do-it-yourself approach appealed to me in the first place.
LA: You know Suzan-Lori Parks's 365 Days / 365 Plays? Well, I think you could have written that before she did because you are a prolific artist. Why? Why produce so much all the time? How does such a productive capacity feed you and the public who experiences your work?
Suzan Lori Parks is the bomb. I want to someday be at the place where I can say, "Take my scraps world, produce them, publish them, you don't understand them? So what? You adore me. Gotta go write a script for Oprah, tah tah." She's a G.
In my 20's I had so much to prove and needed to fulfill all these deep-seeded personal insecurities. I was trying to build a rep. I co-founded Hermit Arts theater company because I wanted to help create not only new theater but new theater-goers and to some degree we did, but it took so much out of us. We were working under such limited constraints; we became disillusioned after a while.
Today, I have slowed down a bit. Since I left Chicago and stepped back from hardcore fringe production, my way of making work has changed. I try to relax and let ideas develop and change in my mind. I'm more focused on making great original written and performance work, though with every rejection letter I am reminded of why the do-it-yourself approach appealed to me in the first place.
BLACK HISTORY MONTH
February Black History Month. Give me a smile and a Coke let me do what I want. Let me spit my little verse and celebrate. Spit my little verse and celebrate."
LA: I want to discuss a particular reading I have of your song "Black History Month." I want you to tell me if I'm finding critiques in the song that just don't exist or exist minimally. As well, I want you to share your own ideas about monthly and one-day "celebrations" like Women's History Month or Latin@ History Month, or National Coming Out Day, and of course, Black History Month.
I see this song as a challenge to traditional, essentialist notions of race and culture. All those monthly or one-day "celebrations, which I call food and feather attempts to avoid the complexities and contradictions inherent in liberal notions of universality, heteronormativity, or rather whiteness.
At my daughter's current independent school, a Montessori elementary school, they completely skipped, avoided, in fact, her teacher "forgot" Black History Month. Yes, that was problematic, but not for the reasons most people think. In fact, I was almost glad her school neglected it because then I didn't have to deal with all of the misguided ways in which they would actually do the Month.
At our daughter's former elementary school in St. Paul, also a Montessori, but a public school, I was embarrassed and horrified by the Black History Month memorial the principal allowed to be displayed. I use the term "memorial" on purpose. Like many of the other public elementary schools my partner and I visited during the month of February (the infamous short month set aside for "us"), the temporary monuments the school's constructed to represent the history of black folks were something intended to remind viewers of mostly dead people--as though the history of African Americans is an event, a flickering moment in which people died.
On display at my daughter's school was the well-known photograph of an enslaved African (I believe his name is "Peter") whose lashed back faces the camera; he has been beaten, the welts in relief on his back. Then there was the famous slave ship photo with the hundreds of black bodies squished together in neat rows and the litany of black (stereo)typicality went on. This is my daughter's first year in school and my eighteenth as an educator, but it wasn't until February of 2008 that I decided to respond to what has been irking me for years in the one-day/one-month memorials.
By accepting the dictum that separate months shall encompass a nation's history as it pertains to one social group or one area of difference, whiteness again remains unmarked, fades into the normative background, its boundaries protected. Blackness and otherness become foregrounded, highlighted against this supposedly normative backdrop.
By participating in this economy of difference, my daughter's school never had to confront the complex questions whose responses can only antagonize liberal notions of the universal human: Who or what is the "different"? Different from whom or what?
What contradictions do "celebrations" of race or gender or sexuality or disability pose that the very celebrations help us to avoid deconstructing? Black History Month displays solely serve to continue the myth that we are at the end of history, that imbrications of race and capital with gender and sexuality are a part of a dead past. These displays help to construct a memorial mythology.
Later in February 2008, the school changed the display (why, I don't know)--and it got worse. Up went black and white and sepia-toned photographs of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century US legislators who were supposedly fortunate enough to be elected. I suppose the point was to show parents See! Some of them, the well-behaved ones, were elected into state office. Underneath the breath of that proclamation is another statement: So they should stop complaining! The end of this "new" display brought us into the present. There were photos of Carol Mosley Braun, Clarence Thomas, Condoleeza Rice, et al, all with bright colored American flags waving in the background behind them.
My discussion of these displays inspired me and an undergraduate student of mine named Katie Ernst to begin working on a project we aptly called the "Anti-Black History Month" project. Katie has since produced a 9-minute film where she asks white people in a small town in South Dakota what they know about Black History Month and whether they think it's important. The point is that we wanted to ask the questions that these iconographic displays avoid.
I guess this is all a long way of getting at and hoping (asking) that your song "Black History Month," (especially the refrain which appears to deride through lyrical critique the notion of these months as celebrations of blackness) is a song that speaks back to these displays and the institutions that create them.
By demanding in the song that we give you "a smile and a Coke," Coke being a commodified material product with a past in exploitative labor practices, and the "smile," which seems to allude to a sort of Stepin Fetchit minstrelsy, one cannot help but think that you are underscoring for the listener the absurdity of Black History Month, those who rejoice in its false celebratory displays, and the concept of having a month to celebrate something we know ain't dead or past. You seem to be saying, perhaps this Month is really just for white folks, for those wedded to ideas of liberal universality, and salvation in trite tropes of honor, forgiveness, and forgetfulness. Is this what the song is doing?
Stepin Fetchit | "Lazy Richard" (5:01)
IG: The chorus you quoted is my fave too. Whenever I'm having a rough time, I go to my friend/collaborator Saint Pete's studio and we bang out music. So one February I was just grumpy. It was freezing. I was running around the city [Chicago] teaching all over, submitting my plays all over only to get rejection after rejection. I was tired. All my friends were telling me I was crazy for moving out of the Chi.
So amidst all my frustration, there's the usual black history month stuff. All the ads for Coke, McDonald's, and Best Western Hotels that usually have white families then had black families. All the usual documentaries on MLK and Harriet Tubman were on PBS, the TV production of Raisin in the Sun starring P. Diddy was on. And I was like, "You know what, this is not all we are. This ain't who I am. Where are the movies about a teaching-hip-hop-cat stomping through the snow in 2008!"
Sean P. Diddy Combs | Raisin in the Sun (2:40)
So I went to Saint Pete's crib and I was just feeling fed up. The refrain is a reference to Bill Cosby's Coke slogan from the '80's and the whole idea of black history as a product, a pre-packaged idea of black America, its heroes, its themes, and ideals all limited and constrained. And "let me spit my little verse and celebrate" was how I was feeling. I wanted relief from this weight, this constraint, this pressure I was feeling at the time. I don't want to write a million plays about slavery, or a million raps about saving the ghetto or any of the themes, topics, ideas that everyone expects you to write about when you are an artist of color.
The Toni Morrisons, Alice Walkers, Harriet Jacobs, etc., etc., wrote all those stories already. This we need to have people of color continue to "write stories that reflect their experience" is for white people. White people are the biggest consumers of black art, especially theater and hip hop and they want their image, their idea, their notions of a black reality confirmed. It's why the show The Wire is so successful. It confirms their notions.
Black History Month and all the other "celebrations" are a big smoke screen, a paltry, paltry sum in comparison to what's been done. What marginalized groups need are systems set in place to offset the years and years and years and years of unfair treatment, subjugation and humiliation. It's typical American schizophrenia to have a month celebrating people that it assassinated, squashed and silenced and won't even apologize for. So yes, the song is my way of making light of the month and also giving it a new context in some ways.
If people play my song every year in February, then perhaps the month could mean something different to them. It's my way of spitting water on convention and expectation. That's pretty much what I'm trying to do with all my work now. Convention and expectation are the death of imagination.
You can check out Goodwin's latest release, Break Beat Poems, here.