Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Black Literary Role Models

BOND: Some of our research said among the people you admired were Alice Walker, Stephen Henderson, Adam David Miller, Nikki Giovanni. What was it about these four particularly that grabbed you?

DOVE: Well, when I was coming of age as a writer, let's say, moving from high school into the college years, I began to roam the library shelves looking for voices that spoke to my life and my existence. I had read Shakespeare and I had read all sorts of white writers who were immensely moving and did speak to me as a human being, but I also was very — I wanted to know if anyone spoke to my particular life and the black arts movement of the '60s was just about at that time, so the writers who were beginning to come out were those very writers. Stephen Henderson had published an incredible anthology of African American poetry, literature, and Alice Walker's first two books of poems had just come out. It was incredibly — It was deeply important, I would say, for me to realize that I was not alone in this enterprise, that in fact, there were others who were addressing what it was like to be an African American in America at that time in this language that I wanted to grow to learn. So, they kind of led me along the way.

BOND: And did you see in them yourself, not particularly as a mirror of exactly what you wanted to do or how you wanted to write but just a mirror of yourself — I can do this.

DOVE: Well, yes, I saw in the possibility that I could do this. I didn't see myself in terms of who I was, a first generation middle class Midwestern black, but I saw the possibilities. For instance, Adam David Miller wrote wildly different poems than Alice Walker. His poems were spread all over the page. They looked like paintings. The words kind of went — And I thought, oh, you can do that with words, too. With Alice Walker, it was the sense that I could write very deeply about the interior life and trust that someone else who may not be black would also say, oh, I've also felt that kind of thing, that common thread of humanity, so I didn't see myself and, in fact, as I first began writing and revising my poems which is when I think of it as serious writing, I remember feeling very very alone in the sense that I had not yet come across someone writing from the Midwestern black sensibility. Then when I was — I still remember, I was in graduate school, I was the University of Iowa, the Writers Program, where you can really feel alone [laughs] as a black person in the middle of a cornfield and I had taken to going to the library every weekend, just going to the poetry section, taking out 20 books and just reading them, just didn't matter what, and trying to educate myself and also just wandering the stacks. This was a time when you could actually wander stacks and I came across a book which was a fiction book. It was a novel, and the cover attracted me. They had stripped the cover, but there was a blue binding on it. It was called The Bluest Eye. I had no idea who this writer would be, but the blue attracted me and I pulled it out. I opened it up and I still remember reading that first page which is going to see Dick and see Spot and I knew that this person was writing from the Midwest and this was someone — They were speaking directly to me. I stood there reading it. I turned to the next page and I saw Ohio, I was like, whoa, a quiet whoa, because I was in a library. I took it out and that was my first exposure to Toni Morrison who, of course, grew up in Lorain, Ohio which is about 30 miles away from me, but what was interesting, and I look back on that was that was that first page was just not race specific and it doesn't say, but I knew. I knew. I don't know why I knew.

BOND: I'm guessing you found something in Nikki Giovanni and even Alice Walker that was race specific as well as these others, but here you're finding something that's not, so that is like a light going on?

DOVE: Yes.

BOND: That you have to do this?

DOVE: There are many lights going on, yes. With Nikki Giovanni, I mean there was this young black poet who had such an exuberance of speech and the oral element of her work was energizing. American poetry had seen nothing quite like that before and at the end of "Nikki Roses," she says what people don't understand, it's that for all, and I'm paraphrasing terribly, we really were quite happy. The insistence that understand, don't make me into a victim. We really were quite happy. That spoke to me and then with Toni Morrison, there was a sense that here's another aspect of black experience. This is not the southern aspect. This is a differentiated, incredibly subtle way of looking at being black in America and how it works, how being invisible and no one says it overtly, but that subversive way in which you're made to feel less than the human race with capital "H" and capital "R." That's what Toni Morrison was doing with those first pages of Bluest Eye and on. It was something that I had lived and felt because although I've talked about getting along with like my classmates and we did, there were still moments. We always had to be on guard. Second grade, I remember one of my classmates who I thought was a good friend and we were going to walk home together, a white girl, and I was dawdling for some reason in the playground and she said, "hurry up, nigger," and I turned and looked and that moment —

BOND: You're talking about me?

DOVE: And then it was interesting, because then a shield went up. I didn't collapse. A shield went up and I remember thinking even then, what's that. How did that happen? I realized I'd been taught it somewhere along the way, just be ready. Okay, it happened, and that's what Toni Morrison was. . . It's there, but you just have to ferret it out.