A booty trap avoided

Exploring the word world in Minnesota, I discovered a liking for theater and film. For a few years I spent a lot of time at the Playwrights’ Center in south Minneapolis, mostly watching works in progress and listening carefully to the discussion afterward. I met Jeffrey Hatcher and Derrick Walcott and August Wilson at the Playwrights’ Center, not at the same time.

In ’91 or ’92 I got a chance to write a two-minute scene that would be staged during some festival or other, and I wrote a conversation between two white Southerners after the local slaves had been freed. I loved hearing people say my words.

There were a lot of words spoken all day, and at some point the director asked me to read a poem written by an actor I knew slightly, and he gave me a copy of it to read.

It was simple-minded and rife with typos, poor usage and bad grammar. I could allow for the typos, and found the rest unfortunate, but the poet was an actor, a reader of other people’s words, not so much a writer. Just saying the words as written was technically possible, except the bad grammar was in hyperbolic praise of black women, especially their butts.

I have nothing against black women or their various butts. Having studied black women inadvertently and no doubt inattentively for 40 years and been dearly tolerated by them the whole time, I’m eternally grateful.

I was at the festival, though, with the most pregnant white woman in the building, and the poem made it clear that the writer’s world revolved around thoughts of brown haunches and the nearby bits. Fine.

I couldn’t possibly tell the 50 or so people there that my pregnant wife was at best a sideline to my all-consuming fascination with and reverence for the stereotypical Negro female form—it wasn’t true. If it were true, it would be a good story and I would tell it. I even considered reading a disclaimer assuring the audience that I was not the author of the poem and did not share his views.

That wasn’t the whole story, though. I wouldn’t read that poem in a closet. It was stupid and badly written, and I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. Know what I did? I told the actor that its power came from his heart, and that his fervor and honesty were unique and could not be duplicated. I couldn’t do his poem justice. It deserved to be read by him. I think he was flattered.