Raise UP: Valerie Mason-John, Social Justice Poet

In today’s contribution to the University Press Week Blog Tour (November 9-13), we share a poem from
I Am Still Your Negro: An Homage to James Baldwin by spoken-word poet, author, and public speaker Valerie Mason-John. This year University Press Week celebrates the ways in which university presses help Raise UP a variety of voices and ideas. When considering today’s theme of “Active Voices,” Mason-John’s collection resonates on many levels, highlighting how a reappraisal of our collective past, which so often overlooks or writes over marginalized voices and experiences, is so absolutely necessary for our current moment.

“You have to decide who you are and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you.” James Baldwin

“I have been trying to bridge cultures, genders, sexualities, all my life.” Valerie Mason-John

I Am Still Your Negro is a blend of spoken word and page poetry that traverses history, geography, and culture, centred on Black female queer identity and the broader experience of the African Diaspora. Called “rigorous and confrontational,” this collection also has moments of self-critique, exuberance, and joy, and actively seeks to continue the work of those artists, writers, and ancestors that came before. With poems that stretch across several continents and decades, Valerie Mason-John uses her voice to speak truth, honour histories, and bring harmony and healing to a generation of people traumatized by the legacies of slavery.

Prescient in its anticipation of 2020’s protests against systemic racism and police brutality, I Am Still Your Negro is poetry that pushes for social change. It is the medium we need right now. Poetry offers a way to empathize with one another and to make sense of the conundrums in our fractured world. In poetry we hold onto experience and histories, however devastating, and also seek a way forward, moving from hate to love, from pain to acceptance. Poetry is active; it borrows from oral tradition and the stage; it plays with language and sound, written words and line breaks; it names, revises, or over-throws what is unnamed or what is given. Poetry urges change, in individuals and in communities. All of those elements are at play in Valerie Mason-John’s work and in her poem “Self-Portrait 2: CALL ME MY NAME,” which you can read below. Be sure to hear her read the piece, too!

By sharing the strength, resilience, and pain of her ancestors, Valerie Mason-John actively raises UP voices that will no longer stay silent.

Thank you for sharing your work with us, Valerie! University of Alberta is proud to help bring your work to a wide audience.

Self Portrait 2

My Queerness is part of my identity
The love of my chosen families

My Queerness is nature’s resplendence
The flowering of my ancestry

My Queerness is being out of the closet
The karma of my queer-bashers

My Queerness is the emancipation of all beings
A fact of life

Queer, Zami, Adofuro, Yan Daudu, Ikihindu
Our Pride before Colonizers came

Gender Fluid, Non-Binary, Genderqueer, Gender Variant,
Intersex, Agender, Bigender, Transgender, Pangender, Third
Gender, Gender Neutral, Two-Spirit, Mx, Ze, Hir
Is what we reclaim

My Queerness is your fear
My courage

Your exclusion
My embrace

Your shame
My pride

Your fantasy
My reality

Your perception
My revelation

Now say my Name