Half Black, Half Blacker: An Interview with Blues Poet Sterling Plumpp

February 9, 2022

A photograph of Sterling Plumpp

When Don Evans, the founding executive director of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, contacted me in August 2019 to contribute a piece for the program that honored Sterling Plumpp with the Fuller Award held at the Poetry Foundation, I felt happy that this lifetime achievement award went to Sterling, one of the finest Chicago writers. I provided Don with a chronology I compiled in Conversations with Sterling Plumpp and a tribute that lists memorable anecdotes about our first meeting in 2005 at the Delta Blues Symposium in Jonesboro, Arkansas, a special issue on him in Valley Voices: A Literary Review, serving as featured writer in an NEH workshop directed by me and visiting writer-in-residence in our department, and backroad rides in the Mississippi Delta to see blues sites and markers.

After editing the manuscript of Conversations with Sterling Plumpp in 2015, I could see that Plumpp had more to say about his association with Chicago CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), the persistence of racism, and Black psychology. Five years later, I spoke with Plumpp again to discuss the current racial tension in Chicago and its comparison to the 1960s. This interview provides an angle for a better understanding of the poet and his writing and thinking.

John Zheng: Sterling, you said you began as a political activist, more political than poetical, in the 1960s. Tell me about your life as a political activist.

Sterling Plumpp: I was for a while a member of Chicago CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality). I was a distribution clerk at the Chicago main post office from 1962 to 1969. The overwhelming majority of the workforce was African American, and yet few Blacks were in management. Therefore, I marched before work everyday protesting the disparity between Blacks and whites in management. Robert Lucas, a fellow postal clerk, became head of Chicago CORE, and soon we campaigned against mobile schools for Blacks because of overcrowding. We also expanded our agendas of protest to include segregated housing.

A major cause was our protest against the killing of Jerome Huey in Cicero, Illinois. He was seventeen years old and lived in Chicago. On May 25, 1966, he went to Cicero to apply for a job at a local freight-loading company, and four white teens attacked him with a baseball bat as he walked in a street. Chicago CORE decided to march to Cicero and hold a brief vigil at the site of the killing of the Black youth, but the angry white racists attacked the demonstrators by throwing bottles and bricks. This was a big event with much press coverage, and the National Guard was summoned to ensure order and public safety. This march resulted in my writing the first poem, “Black Hands,” published in Negro Digest in September 1968. The poem used the image of Black hands to celebrate African American devotion to this country. Though these hands “grasped tightly in death,” they were clasping for peace and change.

It was during this same year that I initially saw LeRoi Jones and purchased a signed copy of Home: Social Essays. My fledgling literary imagination had been born and nurtured under the influences of literary texts by James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison. I was hearing about politics with a Black slant or Black Nationalism. I would frequent Shabazz’s restaurant on 71st Street mainly to get a bean pie and read Muhammad Speaks weekly. I did not have either a literary or political ideology at the time, though I knew deep in my heart that I longed to learn to make art out of my personal experiences and was further committed to engaging in political activities that would benefit my community.

Zheng: Did the killings make you think that racism persists in everyday life?

Plumpp: More than anything else, these killings made me truly see the enormous gulf between Black and white perceptions regarding race in the United States. It made me see that dialogue is impossible until both Blacks and whites do some serious soul-searching and factual analyses of our conditions. To speak quite frankly with you, the killings of unarmed Black youth leave me perplexed, baffled, and angry. During the Civil Rights and Black Power/Black Arts period, I at least knew the differing dialogues regarding race and possible solutions. Now it’s unclear to me what a Black consensus on race and possible solutions are, and it seems to me that whites are in total denial of race and its implications for political agendas.

Zheng: As an African American intellectual, what do you think has to change in America?

Plumpp: It is absolutely essential that America confront its racial, class, political, social, and historical legacy honestly and truthfully. Blacks and whites must have honest and meaningful dialogue regarding race.

It is absolutely essential that America confront its racial, class, political, social, and historical legacy honestly and truthfully.

Zheng: Can you talk about the current racial tensions in Chicago and in the United States?

Plumpp: African American life and experiences in urban centers were far different than the experiences in the South. Blacks began moving to the Midwest, East, and West from the agricultural South in the late 1930s. The Second World War was the impetus to greatly increase the number of these migrants moving from a geography where slavery existed and where de facto segregation laws imposed a marginal existence upon them. This phenomenon is reflected in the 1950 census, which showed that for the first time a majority of African Americans living outside of the South were in urban areas of the North.

We can safely surmise that Blacks left the South for various reasons: (1) to escape the inhuman grip that land tenancy or sharecropping had on their futures; (2) to flee the indignities caused by the imposition of segregation and Jim Crow laws and practices; and (3) to escape the lynch rope or burning at the stake if they forgot their places.

The current racial tensions in Chicago have their roots anchored deeply in the Black migration process from the South. Chicago or Detroit or Gary differ from Black experiences in the South because the African American workers would now be compensated weekly for their labor with wages, and their numbers swelled to such an extent that their political and economic power created spaces for a modicum of self-determination. You had greater opportunities for education and ascendancy. Thus, you had a solid Black middle class providing services for Black citizens. There were radio stations, newspapers, churches, funeral homes, restaurants, barber shops. There was a thriving business community, and Thirty-fifth and Forty-seventh Streets were meccas or showcases for Black entrepreneurs and for shopping in this area in the Chicago community and in Bronzeville.

However, when Blacks arrived in cities of the Midwest, East, or West, there were no welcome mats for them or any processes for their social integration into society. Thus, they had to exist in confined spaces, which eventually led to overcrowding. The tragic reality of Blacks living in communities on the Southside of Chicago is that rather than granting them more horizontal space to expand, they developed a policy of erecting a vertical existence in high-rises where they could be contained.

The primary effects of confining the uneducated and poor in high-rise structures meant that living there became intolerable because of the eventual arrival and spread of gang activity and conflicts over drugs. These high-rise public housing projects became apartheid structures within the city of Chicago.

Zheng: How are the current racial tensions in Chicago in comparison to the 1960s?

Plumpp: The 1960s are ironic in that there was a short-lived period of hopefulness and pride spawned by the Black consciousness and Black Power ideologies of the time. The passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voters Rights Act and the concomitant elections of Black mayors in Cleveland, Ohio; Gary, Indiana; and Newark, New Jersey, created a sense of progress and hope. However, the volcanic eruptions of spontaneous uprising or riots in 1966 and 1967 and culminating in the unmatched conflagration after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 forever changed the Black community and Black-and-white relations. The most salient aspects of these events are the migration of educated and solidly working-class African Americans from the inner city to South Shore and to South Suburban communities—Country Club Hills, Hazel Crest, Markham Homewood, Calumet City, and South Suburban.

These migrations left a bleak landscape behind in Chicago’s inner city. This resulted in areas that the commentator Bill Moyers referred to as places “whose inhabitants are the underclass.” These are communities where there is no viable shopping, the school system has stopped functioning, health care delivery systems are ineffective, and the law enforcement agencies are overvigilant. In fact, these communities or spaces are considered prime real estate where there are no local or federal policies to improve conditions so that these individuals could live a decent existence where they are. These communities do not have the benefit of an educated leadership that could support strong advocacy, and the residents become pawns in this vicious game of survival and a fight for resources in a place where their manual labor is no longer needed. Yet the greatest impact was not due to race but the loss of industrial jobs, where with minimal education African Americans were able to achieve a middle-class living.

Zheng: Would there be a solution to these tensions?

Plumpp: Though despairing and bleak, there is a possibility for some rare phoenix to rise from the ashes of inner-city Black plight. There is an unstoppable movement for community empowerment, and there is a new consciousness emerging. The youth hold the key. The Black Lives Matter movement addresses an agenda spawned by “systemic racism.” There are no immediate or short-term solutions to racism as it pertains to relationships between Blacks and governmental institutions or white communities. At this stage the Black church and educated Blacks must combine leadership to support the spontaneous demands of this movement. They also must guide and work with Black communities in the quest to make their lives matter.

There is a possibility for some rare phoenix to rise from the ashes of inner-city Black plight.

Black Lives Matter could very well morph into a national movement beyond the extraordinary work they did to deter police from killing unarmed Black citizens like George Floyd or Breonna Taylor. It is about saying that the only hope for humane existence for African Americans in the inner city is an intense “you don’t want to give up” quest for education and literacy in order to gain the skills to engage in an economy and social agenda for the community. The African American community is no different than any citizenry in the major society of this time. It needs to cultivate the means to develop strong family and strong community, with clearly defined goals for the future. Education must be its religion if it is to prevail.

Zheng: You said in the interview conducted by Jerry Ward that your book Half Black, Half Blacker indicates a different level of perception within yourself. What is this different level of perception?

Plumpp: I thought I knew what it was to be Black based upon my experiences. Then I became more informed about my past and I knew more. I began to systematically study African culture and its permutations through acculturations in the diaspora. Then I studied African American ideologies from integration to nationalism and decided that I was “half Black and half blacker.” I am no ideologue. I identify with Blackness, but I am not yet ready to adopt either the philosophy of Marcus Garvey or the Honorable Elijah Muhammad as my mantra. I suppose I subconsciously view Blackness as a state of consciousness culturally. I have not yet rejected Christianity because of its Western influences. Neither have I rejected literary texts because they are European or Indian. Who I am cannot be simplified into Black and white. I have always been torn or confused or complicated regarding my cultural identity.

I studied African American ideologies from integration to nationalism and decided that I was “half Black and half blacker.” I am no ideologue.

Zheng: I feel that your essay book Black Rituals does not just talk about Black psychology; it also talks about Black beauty, a strong element of Langston Hughes’s poetry and also of the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s. Can you share with us your experience of writing Black Rituals and your idea of Black beauty?

Plumpp: I wrote Black Rituals after I had attended classes two years in pursuit of a master’s degree in psychology at Roosevelt University. I did not want to write a book about Black psychology per se; I simply wanted to culturally account for how the unique African Americans believed and expressed their beliefs. There are times when I am talking about Black beauty as expressed in the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. I was looking for a way to culturally position concepts of beauty and art in the two cultural/literary movements. I wrote Black Rituals at a time when I became intently aware that I am really a Black peasant, a child of the Mississippi soil, baptized in a Saturday-afternoon lake and nourished to a conversionary experience whereby Christ showed me a sign that I had been saved. I was rural. Country folk knew hot dust broiling feet in summers. Somehow I learned to read. I left the South for the North, but I have not lost those southern roots.

Zheng: What is the relationship between your identity as an African American poet and the psychological interrogation of race in your poetry?

Plumpp: As an African American poet, an artist, I am always conscious of the necessity to apprentice myself into the texts or endeavors of the craft before me in order to effect self-realization. I suspect that the quest for literacy, that solitary painful journey, is always intended, and therefore the African American artist qualitatively differs from the African American intellectual in this respect. I do not know if the artist ever confronts the truth he or she always approaches or alludes to or summons a truth. It is, perhaps, personal.

Zheng: How did Black music make you discover that you were southern?

Plumpp: I was born on a cotton plantation in Mississippi, as were my father and his father, but to me “southern” implies a cultural legacy within a specific history. The more I listened to and pondered the meaning of Negro spirituals, blues, jazz, and gospel, the more I realized that the inventors of this music created and imposed a vision of existence on a southern landscape, and succeeding generations took this vision with them wherever they went. Black music led me to view its creators as the authors of authentic and original expressions of this land.

The more I listened to and pondered the meaning of Negro spirituals, blues, jazz, and gospel, the more I realized that the inventors of this music created and imposed a vision of existence on a southern landscape, and succeeding generations took this vision with them wherever they went.

Zheng: In an interview by Dike Okoro, you said your literary voice was born under the harsh conditions of Chicago. Does that mean your voice, which is southern, becomes urban too? Can you use a poem of yours to illustrate the use of Black vernacular to create your Chicago jazz voice?

Plumpp: It means that the environment of Chicago is so harsh, so imposing, and so defining, I reacted in such a way that I acted existentially to negate the dictates of that environment. What it really means is that I had to affect a voice neither southern or Chicago. I suspect the long poem “Steps to Break the Circle” illustrates the dynamics involved in being a southern voice writing in an urban setting. The poetic response is to use multiple Black personas in a narrative.

Zheng: How does a writer revive language and/or retranslate language? Can you talk specifically by using an example of your poetry?

Plumpp: A writer revives language by reimagining its varied usages. In Horn Man and Ornate with Smoke, I am merely reimagining the power of the voice of the saxophone or trumpet or (axe); I am not inventing it. In a way silence has made these axe voices dormant, and my pen awakes them.

Zheng: You said to Reginald Gibbons that the best way for you to exploit your concerns with blues was to do it as a jazz voice. To jazz a poem, what do you do and how do you achieve it?

Plumpp: When I say “jazz a poem,” I am speaking about several things with respect to language and language usage in the poem. I am talking about words, usage of words, repetition, repetition for special effect. Also, metaphor and the use of metaphor. I am talking about how a poet investigates the malleability of language in order to achieve an intended poetic effect. Sometimes with the use of slash, sometimes without that usage.

Zheng: In an interview with Fifth Wednesday Journal, you said you were not a book poet. I think your poetry is suitable for performance. In other words, it belongs to the oral tradition of African American culture, and to blues and jazz.

Plumpp: Yes. I am a poet of the ear, and therefore my oral and aural sensibilities are acute. I try to show students through sound and the visual presentations of poems on the page how and why I arrive at my aesthetic. It belongs to the oral tradition of African American culture; but, as more skilled poets continue to mine this culture, its future will be in the book.

Zheng: A very strong element of your poetry is the use of Black vernacular. Can you talk about the difference between book poetry and vernacular poetry so that young poets can better understand the importance of vernacular poetry?

Plumpp: I have not yet concluded that there are enough poems in the vernacular to canonize them yet. My mind says that vernacular poetry is very much in a heightened experimental stage. When I write in vernacular I am placing myself in a tradition of individuals who came here via slave ships. I am referencing them and their culture in terms of African continuity. Book poetry simply privileges the outstanding literary texts of Western poetry, and vernacular poetry is doing the same with the important addition of African American culture. Vernacular poetry does not reject book poetry; it simply adds to it the rich tradition of African American culture.

When I write in vernacular I am placing myself in a tradition of individuals who came here via slave ships. I am referencing them and their culture in terms of African continuity.

Zheng: What is Black imagination? And what is the relationship between Black imagination and poetry writing?

Plumpp: Black imagination is something cultural to me. It is a culturally determined or shaped predisposition or tendency to respond to a set of ways that link “African survivals” and their appropriate rituals and ceremonies. The poet draws on every aspect of his existence in order to arrive at his language and attitudes toward experienced phenomena.

Zheng: Can you talk about the role of country church in African American culture?

Plumpp: The Black church is the most important social and cultural institution in African American life. It has the longest historical tenure. African Americans of every class have always been a part of the African American church. African American expressions in their purest forms are found within the Black Church, so much so that it might be said the Black church is the dialysis machine of Black culture. It is there that one finds continuity from African Americans in Negro spirituals to blues, jazz, and gospel.

Zheng: How is it reflected in African American literature?

Plumpp: The influence of the Black church is so pervasive that one can find its imprints in almost every aspect of African American literature. If one takes Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, its influence is in the dialect of the narrator long before one knows that he intends to become a preacher. Likewise, it is felt in the opening scene of Native Son as Bigger engages in combat with a rat. One senses that Bigger has not accepted the Savior, has not been washed in his blood, and therefore is destined for the fires of hell. Like in Morrison’s Sula, the protagonist’s return is foreboding simply because she has not accepted the dictates of the Ten Commandments and therefore is bent on some eventuality that will bring ruin to herself and the community.

One senses this though it is never stated directly. It is my belief that the Black Church has imposed its worldview on African American perceptions so much that when one says that this is a Black perspective, what it really means is that this is a Black church perspective.

John Zheng is the author of A Way of Looking and the editor of Conversations with Dana Gioia and Conversations with Sterling Plumpp. He has published interviews in African American Review, Arkansas Review, Mississippi Quarterly, and a few other journals. He has received two artist fellowships from Mississippi Arts Commission.