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West Oakland playwright and poet Ayodele Nzinga’s new poetry book, “SorrowLand Oracle,” published by Nomadic Press in November 2020, is a fierce critique of white supremacy and capitalism, systems, she warns, that threaten to “destroy humanity.” Against this, her words insist that humans can heal by fighting these systems and the “wolves” who profit from them. Conspiring with nature and like minded people, we can “bury the paradigm we’re in to set the table for midwifing a more human centered paradigm.”
Nzinga never implies the fight is easy, or that success is inevitable. In an often quoted 1968 speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “we shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Nzinga’s poem “neither wolf nor sheep,” finds no comfort in that quote, especially given King’s assasination five days after he spoke those words. She writes:
“king said he believed the arc leaned toward good then they murdered king”
She makes her views on revolutionary progress clear later in the poem:
“its direction depends on the work of human hands”
Nzinga describes this “arc & its direction” as “an eternal battleground,” of continuously fighting the dominant culture, where complacency is dangerous.
Her poem “canon,” is about “becoming the Black person at the head of this crooked system.” She critiques powerful well-paid Black academics and politicians that advance a white supremacist and capitalist agenda by claiming that, though they’ve reached a destination the mainstream culture lauds, and a level of comfort, in the end they’re only the “lead sheep / content to eat well / until the slaughter.” They will eventually become “delicious morsels” when a reckoning comes.
Sometimes such reckoning is internal pain, a theme Nzinga dwells on. The lines “ask colin powell / about the cost of sleep,” remind readers that former President George W. Bush said he was “sleeping like a baby” as the country prepared to invade Iraq in 2003, while Powell, Bush’s secretary of state, faced torment. Powell told a New Yorker reporter just before the war: “I sleep like a baby too, every two hours I wake up screaming.”
The poem “inked” immediately follows “canon,” and Nzinga said in an interview with The Oaklandside that she intended them to be read as companion pieces. Both works describe archetypes Black people can embody, but they are seemingly opposites. The archetype in “inked” is a Black man covered in tattoos that tell the story of friends he’s lost, the places he claims, and what once were his ambitions. He has a “splay of bullets” tattoo, another with “a blonde wearing a blindfold / smoking a blunt,” another with the words “Godz grant me the serenity / to hustle on.”
Nzinga describes this man’s Black masculinity as performative, shaped by a capitalist culture and painted in his ink, but the poem implies he’s no longer sure he believes in such an identity. In lines scattered throughout the poem, we see that “tattoo tears…weigh more than they used to” as “the set / emblazoned on his chest / more target than vest” leaves him “trapped in a rebel suit.” The story on his body stays the same. To police, he’s still “the usual suspect.”
When I spoke with Nzinga about her book, she explained that this man “can be king of the hood, everything they want him not to be, their worst nightmare, but that’s a pretty fucked up destination too, to be hunted for life and to be outside.”
The language and structure Nzinga uses throughout “SorrowLand Oracle” is complex and well worth grappling with. She avoids using capital letters so as to prevent some words from appearing vaulted or dominant. Even “jesus” appears on the same level as “the people.” Her poems have no periods, commas, or semicolons, allowing the freer flow of ideas and meaning. Stanza and line breaks provide a minimum of structure to guide readers, but they’re less definite. The lack of punctuation sometimes leaves multiple interpretations as to when a thought, or clause ends, and the next one begins.
Towards the end of the poem “the closing of jesus,” about a modern day homeless Black messiah who hyphy dances through West Oakland as banks “steal black folk’s homes” around the time of the 2008 foreclosure crisis, Nzinga writes:
“jesus best not dance there no more wonder what happened to dancing jesus must have been a message but didn’t nobody hear it”
The focus on Black owned-homes is intentional. “I make art for Black people,” Nzinga said. “I don’t care who eavesdrops.”
She describes her poetry as “an insider conversation that is open to others.” Blackness is normative in “SorrowLand Oracle,” inviting a Black gaze. For Nzinga, holding and tending to Black space is crucial for universal liberation.
“In most paradigms and equations, Black people are on the bottom,” she said. “If you lift from the bottom everything else moves.”
Nzinga’s roots come from this “bottom.” In the early 1950s, her first breaths were taken in a Chicago hospital where she had been abandoned by her extremely young mother who had fled from her family in State Line, Mississippi while pregnant with her. But Nzinga was soon lifted. Her grandmother picked her up and brought her back to State Line, where she moved in with her great-grandparents. A few years later her grandmother took her to the Bay Area, where her mother had moved. Her grandma settled in Berkeley and her mother lived in Vallejo. Nzinga spent time in both homes growing up and settled in Oakland as a young adult, where she’s remained.
Although she started pursuing her higher education about 20 years ago, eventually earning a PHD in transformative education & change from the California Institute of Integral Studies in 2012, she’s stayed committed to “lifting from the bottom” by making art for and with Black people, and collaborating to carve out space for them to create and thrive. In 1999, while living in West Oakland’s Lower Bottoms neighborhood, where she still resides, Nzinga founded The Lower Bottom Playaz, a non-profit theatre that produces original works and works from “the North American African Canon.” The theater stresses Black expression while avoiding white expectations of Black performativity.
Nzinga is currently working with playwright and activist Cat Brooks to produce a play called Janga’s House. She’s also looking for other local Black female writers and historians to contribute to the production. According to her call for collaborators, Nzinga and Brooks plan to explore “communal memories of place and narratives of thriving in the post-gentrification ‘sundown town’ of West Oakland.” By focusing on West Oakland’s Black history and thriving present, the play aims to preserve the area’s Black life against gentrification, which Nzinga defines as seeking “ownership and eternal conquest” that necessitates erasure.
Nzinga’s art and the change it seeks to foster works within what she describes as the “divine law” of nature. She notes that constant change is a key component to nature. But it’s not a change that erases or dominates. Wind can blow an acorn to create a new Oak tree, but destroying an Oak tree will erase generations of Oak trees.
“To erase what came before is not being with nature,” she said. “The archeology of natural change is kind because it encompasses everything that came before.”
Through “SorrowLand Oracle,” and her art and life, Nzinga aims to work with people, especially Black people, to live in a way that is symbiotic with each other and nature.
“If people do not find their purpose, then the village is unbalanced because there’s a person who’s unbalanced,” she said.
As the world is always changing, the purpose always changes. For Nzinga, there’s a danger in complacency or acceptance of “destinations” created by capital that hinders the constantly changing fight to create what people need to thrive. She’s uncompromising in her demand for systemic change.
“I’m very clear about what I want and that’s it’s not a bad thing to want,” said Nzinga. “I want for everybody to have enough. I want for people to have access to education, to housing, to food, to clean air.”
“SorrowLand Oracle” implies that looking towards top-down solutions within a capitalist system won’t get people what they need. “you can’t win a crooked game even if they let you deal,” she writes in her three part poem, “the people.” This line, and others from the poem seem to allude to former president Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s legacy of reforming and dulling the sharpest and most destructive aspects of capitalism through “The New Deal,” but not changing its core. The New Deal housing policy brought public housing and federal housing loans to millions of Americans, but it also excluded Black people from securing such loans, and it reinforced redlining, a system of disinvesting in Black neighborhoods. With politicians proposing a Green New Deal today, and others attacking it, but few addressing the racist legacy of the original New Deal, it’s interesting to see Nzinga write:
“the house is crooked we don’t need a new deal we need a new game”