In this episode of the Whole Bushel, Philadelphia poet-activist Ursula Rucker talks about speaking truth to power as a woman and mother
Eze Jackson: What’s up, y’all? Welcome back for another episode of “The Whole Bushel” on The Real News Network. I’m your host, Eze Jackson. “The Whole Bushel” is an artist interview show where I sit down with performing artists to discuss issues that matter to them the most, all while sitting there eating crabs the way we do here in Baltimore, Maryland. My guest today, I’m very excited to have poet and activist Ursula Rucker. Welcome. Ursula Rucker: Thank you. Eze Jackson: It’s good to have you. I finally got to sit down and eat some crabs with you. Ursula Rucker: I noticed. It’s crazy. It’s so cool. Eze Jackson: Good times. We even walked through a little bit of tutorial there. Ursula Rucker: I took my lesson … don’t nobody tease me, I’m just learning. Eze Jackson: Word, word. Ursula Rucker: I’m gonna get the hang of it, though. Eze Jackson: Well, welcome to Baltimore. This is our thing, this is what we do here; well, one of them. I want to start off talking about Philly a little bit. That’s your hometown, and I know the backdrop, most of your work. But Philly, like Baltimore, is a really fascinating city. I mean, you’ve got all of the “firsts”: you got the first African Methodist Episcopal Church established there by Richard Allen; of course, the Liberty Bell, to one of the largest concentrations of black Muslims in a city; and then of course, the musical history of Philly is well-known. What does Philly mean to you? What is Philly to Ursula Rucker? Ursula Rucker: Philly is everything to me. It be like, being on your ship that you work so hard to obtain. You’re the captain of your ship, and it’s like, even if the ship got a hole in it and it’s on fire, you gonna stay on that ship, and that’s how I feel about Philly. It’s like, with all of its … we say the same kind of cliché phrase, like, “with all of its bumps and bruises and bright spots.” I love it. I love it all, and I reserve the right to complain about it or bitch about when it’s something I don’t like, because I’m a Philly girl, but at the same time, if somebody else says something bad about my city, well, what you said? Why? This poem is called “Philadelphia Child.” Philadelphia child: wild, mild, mind all filled with city. Fresh city, foul city, fiery city, frigid city. Philadelphia child. Wild, mild, wildflower, watered with child power. Growing from cracks in cement sidewalks and schoolyards and playgrounds. Singular and lovely. Common and ugly. Philadelphia child: piled high with visions of history, rhythms of ghetto’s glory. Fifty-two story buildings, Alfred’s Alley, Richard Allen, Liberty Bell rings, sewer smells and belly swells. Class trips to Independence Hall evoke questions like, “Where do I fit in all of this?” For our ghetto girls and [inaudible 00:04:17] boys, taught lessons in the voice of the Founding Forefathers, but those same four still ain’t found their fathers. Still ain’t found their fathers. Philadelphia child: at the mercy of the public school system, at the mercy of the existence, of human allegiance and government-financed dads with the element of chance, the chance to know, the chance to fly, the change to grow, the chance to die in body, in spirit, mind, or soul; the chance to be gold or fool; the chance to be gold or fool. Philadelphia child: Olympic hopeful won gold medals in matches flipping and subway sprinting. Well-versed in the “yo” lingo, pretzel and cheesesteak fed, Philly born and bred. Tasty-cake sweet or hard of head. Tread and trampled on, same ground Ben Franklin and the boys walked upon. Drill teams have replaced the “not ready for integration declaration of interdependence players.” White-booted, Philly-attituded, zooted up on school-kill punch. They shout above drum and street stomp, saying, “We are here. We are here. We are here. We are here. We are. We live. We matter. We are. We live. We matter. We are. We live. We matter. Eze Jackson: What was it like for you growing up compared to today? Ursula Rucker: Man, I mean, so different. Simple, just being on the block with the friends and the fire hydrant. Sitting on the step; stoop sitting is my favorite. Cities like Baltimore, Philly, Detroit, Chica … you can stoop sit. A lot of people don’t get to have that experience. Or porch and stoop; if I had a porch and a nice double set of steps at the crib. I got options- Eze Jackson: You could fill up the whole thing- Ursula Rucker: So like that? That’s one of my fondest memories, sitting on my front steps. My mom sold our childhood home a couple years ago; man, it’s even hard for me to ride back through there because I get sad. I’m like, “Aw, man.” I want to go up and knock on the door like, “You know this is my house, right?” Eze Jackson: This is still my house. We were talking a bit earlier about gentrification, and that’s happening in a lot of American cities. Is your childhood home and area, is that area where you grew up an area that’s being gentrified? I know you talked about where you’re at now, Germantown, but that area still- Ursula Rucker: Yeah, I grew up in an area that’s called, could be called a variety of things, we’re never quite sure, East Germantown, East Mount Airy, in between. And it’s not gentrified, which is great. It still feels kind of the same when I ride through there, so much so that, like I was saying how much I love Philly, but then I ride through the same places I’ve been seeing for a lot of years and I’m like, “Oh, my God. I’m still looking at this shit? I gotta get out of here.” But, it’s also a comfort about these things still being there and me being able to have that memory, that kind of visceral memory attachment. Eze Jackson: Some parents, of course, encourage, discourage, stay neutral in terms of their kids following their footsteps, and I know you mentioned a couple of your sons rap. Do you either encourage or discourage them to be artists or anything, or- Ursula Rucker: I encourage them to not give me a hard time. If that’s happening, I’m fully supportive of anything that you’re doing, with exceptions; okay, if you’re out there wiling up, then I’m not. But hey, if you want to go to college, go to college. I’m not one of those parents who’s like, “If you don’t go to college, you’re out of here.” I just kind of give different options and talk ad nauseum. They get tired of my speeches about everything. But I’m a pretty open, accepting, but also … I’m not the disciplinarian, but I’m definitely on them. “Whatcha doing? What’s that? Where you going?” Eze Jackson: Making sure- Ursula Rucker: Oh, yeah. They can’t stand it. They can’t stand it. But they all have some level of artistry that they participate in on their own. And they love it, and I don’t say anything. Eze Jackson: That’s awesome. Ursula Rucker: They give me my credit whenever you feel like it. Eze Jackson: They will. They will. I’m sure they will. One of the things that, for me, I’ve listened to you since I was a teenager, and one of the things I’ve always taken away from your work is that I can vividly see or hear what it’s like to be a woman as much as possible. As a man, I’ll never fully know what it’s like, but you have always been able to paint very detailed images of what the experience of being a woman is. One piece in particular, the first time I ever heard you was on The Roots’ “Do You Want More” album. There’s a story that you tell about basically a young woman who is taken advantage of by several men. They’re coming in and out, having- Ursula Rucker: Supposedly taken advantage of- Eze Jackson: Supposedly taken advantage of, but they’re having sex with this woman one by one, they’re coming in, and you describe each one of them vividly, and at the end she pulls out a gun and says, “Now tell me: what’s my name?” I always wanted to ask you about that story. Where did it come from? What does it mean, and maybe a little bit about how you came to put that out there? Ursula Rucker: Yeah, thank you, first of all. I’m thinking about whether I want to try and do this again- Eze Jackson: Yeah, go ahead. I’m on my show- Ursula Rucker: I might as well take the challenge [inaudible 00:11:42], plus it tastes good. You know, I really have to give it up to Ahmir Thompson, AKA Questlove, for believing in me and believing that something like this could be possible and that people would actually dig it or anything that like, and coming to me and proposing the concept, which was to write an account of a woman who was gang banged but came out, was the victor. So up until that point, and still now always, whenever I write something, it has to be real and come through me somehow so it makes sense, like I can process inside and it’s not like I’m just writing about something I know absolutely nothing about, which, thank God, this has not really happened to me. I just thought about times in my 20s pre-kids when I was doing my thing, my single thing, and I would get with a dude and the dude would sit around and talk about whatever we did privately with a bunch of dudes that I knew. You know what I’m saying, like, “Ursula? Oh, okay, word.” I really had, this really happened, so I was like, I’ll take it from there, because then I could use something that actually happened to me to translate it. This poem is called “What A Woman Must Do.” Until you walk, run, fight a mile in her shoes, don’t you dare stand in front of me and tell me what a woman must do. Until you have walked, run, fought a mile in her shoes, don’t you dare stand in front of me and tell me what a woman must do. Wat a woman must do She must swing from chandeliers for undeserving spouses and paramours who deny her suffrage by day, but crave and praise her womanly wiles by night. Good enough to fuck but not good enough to vote. She must go from the beauty of Africa to the horrors of Massa; go from titties dangling bare and shameless to being branded, licentious, temptress, embarrassed; go from land of yams and heat hot to land of cash crops and sellers block; go from God names to no name to his names; go from God names to no name to his names. Now black. Now inhuman. Freedom stolen, family stolen, now beholden but still golden. Field hollering, and ain’t I a woman? Ain’t I a woman? I can see her, me washing dishes, clothes, and children, making love, money, dinner, and beds. Always the first one off the sinking ship but last in the line to receive just a little bit of respect. What, what a, what a woman must do. What, what a, what a woman must do. She must, she must wipe away tears and reclaim strength after rape, abortion, lover’s betrayal, child’s birth, child’s death, husband’s abuse. Tricking to buy baby shoes, she must be called a muse, which is just a synonym for use. Put upon pedestals, dainty and protected, and because of that disrespected, Victorianized, victimized, made a paradox of famous anonymity. Left to go insane with too much femininity staring at the yellow wallpaper. Her heart open, her legs open warm and welcoming, waiting. Waiting for phone calls that never come. Waiting for words of appreciation that never come. Waiting for equal pay that never comes. It just never comes. It just never- Waiting. Waiting. And when seeking or achieving any place of power, reduced to tiny little labels like, “concubine, “cunt,” “bitch,” “whore,” “stunt,” “witch,” “dyke.” “Concubine, “cunt,” “bitch,” “whore,” “stunt,” “witch, “dyke.” And none of those are her name. And none of those have ever been her name, or your name, and certainly not my name. What. What a. What a woman must do. Until you walk or run or fight, until you have walked or run or fought, until you walk or run or fight just one mile in her shoes, don’t you even dare stand in front of me and part your lips to tell me what a woman must do. Eze Jackson: How do you feel today about the struggle of woman has improved? Do you think that there’s still a long way to go? Ursula Rucker: Well, you know, let me see because I like to be … Without going too far to my conspiracy theorist mood- Eze Jackson: If you want to go into it, you can. You’re welcome to. Ursula Rucker: We have someone, right, who we all try to figure out creative ways to say this about this dude, because we don’t … someone who got elected slash hired to serve as the President of the United States of America, who was on a video and said about women some horrible things and that he would grab them by the pussy, and still is the President. To me, that says a lot about how women are viewed in this country, and although we had and continue always to make inroads, make our presence known, celebrate ourselves, just be outward and brazen and beautiful and amazing with ourselves. Still a lot of work to be done. If anyone wants to sit and be complacent and say, “Oh, it’s cool, we’re good.” We’re not good. We are not good. Have you listened to the songs? The songs that my kids and my neighborhood … If you ride through my neighborhood, it’s all that’s coming out of the cars and it’s always degrading women. Always. Always. Eze Jackson: My boys Josh Stokes – Josh has been on the show – we were riding the other day, and we heard a lyric from Lil Wayne that said, and it’s kind of like a happy dancy song, actually- Ursula Rucker: Right, so they trick you. Eze Jackson: And he says, “And when she on the molly, she a zombie.” And it stopped us in that, what? I don’t understand. Do you want to have sex with zombies? I don’t get it. You know what I mean? Ursula Rucker: It’s crazy. Eze Jackson: It’s insane. Ursula Rucker: If you pulled up some real statistics on what women get paid as opposed to what men get paid for the same exact job, everybody’s okay with this? You okay with this? That it’s so … It doesn’t make any sense to me. Eze Jackson: Especially when you have women who are in the very party that is doing some of this stuff. I look at … I’m always wondering what are going through the minds of the wives of these Republicans, and their daughters. How can they really … because these are the very people that are helping with their fundraisers and they’re right there by their side every step of the way. What’s going through their minds? Ursula Rucker: Well, see, when you talk about women, you talk about women, right, the big thing of “all women,” and then you have to “white women,” “black women,” Asian women,” “Latino women,” so there’s a … You gotta look at everything. A lot of what I hear, a lot of my sisters and fellow artists, forward thinkers and movers talking about white feminism as opposed to black women who live a life of following the writings and philosophy of feminism; even that, it’s “Oh, it’s a bunch of feminists.” But wait a minute, though. Everything is so messy. It’s messy, but all in all, they don’t give us our propers. They don’t give us our respect, support, love, admiration, celebration, and I am here to always champion that cause. Eze Jackson: Would you consider yourself a feminist? Ursula Rucker: No. Eze Jackson: Why? Ursula Rucker: Because I like to be free. I like to just move about the planet as I wish, and I don’t want to adhere to … I want to love, support, be angry, cuss people out, learn the truth, spread the truth, all this kind of stuff, and I want to do it the way I want to do it. I don’t want nobody calling me up like, “Wait a minute, you said you were a feminist-” Nope. You’re not gonna get me with that. Eze Jackson: You feel like feminists can’t do that? They have to- Ursula Rucker: I’m not saying. I’m saying me. This is me. Ursula. This poem is called, “And Still.” We be just images on white rags sometimes. Unjust. Where the just justice at? Y’all be forgetting about the pyramids. Y’all be forgetting about the pyramids. The great and mighty walk been forged by bleeding black souls. But y’all be trying to keep us off our own path. Bleached our blood off of it. Sanitized, sterilized, now we demonize. We always be demonize. Lies, lies, lies, lies. Wade in the water. Awake in the water. Wait in the water. New world order, ain’t nothing new. Black bodies been hated and desired, hated and desired. Desired. Hated. Want us. Want to be like us. Want to look like us. Want to move like us. Want to love like us. Want to kill us. Want to kill us to inhabit us. Want to kill us because you can’t have us, be us, body mind soul snatch us, wipe us out. Whitewash us and do us your way, the Great White Way. Did you know I could touch the sun? Hold it in my hand? Harness its light and heat and power, and still y’all fuck with my black body? My black spirit. My black energy, my black electricity, electricity. I am beyond sexuality. I am ancient synergy of space and matter and history, and still y’all fuck with my black body. You are desecrating sacred ground current when you desecrate me. You are desecrating sacred ground current when you desecrate me. Blind you with my light, burn you with my heat, heal or hurt you with my power. Blind you with my light, burn you with my heat, heal or hurt you with my power. Centuries compress each hour you choose not to prostrate yourself before my black body, and still y’all fuck with me. I could reach into your chest and grip your heart up in my hand and blow the ashes away. But I was born benevolent and merciful, from the womb of a star, and the all-encompassing and giving black hole, and yet still. Being human is just an idea when you’re an ion, energy, fire, nucleus. Nina was not just human. Coltrane was not just human. [inaudible 00:26:48] was not just human. Ella was not just human. They were just proliferating and executing the idea of humanness and creating within it to the most highest degree, and still y’all fuck with my black body. Eze Jackson: I like to ask some of the guests this question, and in particular I want to hear your response. Would you consider yourself a patriot? Ursula Rucker: No. Eze Jackson: Why? Ursula Rucker: Why? Eze Jackson: Why, yeah. Ursula Rucker: First of all, I don’t like red, white, and blue. Aesthetically it’s just not pleasing to me. Eze Jackson: Just the colors, they not your thing? Ursula Rucker: I get a kick out of myself. What am I going to be? What am I going to pledge my allegiance to? A place that doesn’t love me? Would I pledge my precious commitment and allegiance to anyone or anything, place, space, notion, idea, that does not love me? Does not love my sons? Doesn’t love my sons? Okay? Looks at my sons as a threat, as not worth investing in, as anonymous. Would I? Why would I? I mean, if you were just even gonna break down some of the language in these things we were taught to say and these songs that we sang in school as we were coming up; now, people get up to pledge allegiance and I’m like? Eze Jackson: What would you say you pledge your allegiance to if there was something you say you do pledge your allegiance to? Ursula Rucker: That’s a good question. Love. Eze Jackson: Love. Ursula Rucker: All day. Every day. And people have to understand that love is not – so, so much in there, so for me that’s like, I pledge allegiance to the truth, to freedom, to peace, to real true humanity, to humans, to love. That’s all, and love, that’s all to passionate love, to everything, to the love a parent has for a child, all of that. Everything I do, everything I do is about love. I could tear up. Why I keep doing this art is because of love despite the hardship, the struggle, whatever. It’s for love. Eze Jackson: Well, you should know that we love you for it. Ursula Rucker: Thank you. Eze Jackson: I know I do. Ursula Rucker: I love you. Eze Jackson: All of my people that know you’re here today, they’re like- Ursula Rucker: I was telling you, Baltimore is my “yo,” right here, for real. Eze Jackson: I’m grateful for you. I thank you for coming on. Ursula Rucker: Thank you for having me. Eze Jackson: Let’s sit and enjoy some of these, and we’ll wrap up. Thanks for joining us for another episode of “The Whole Bushel.” If you’d like to stay up to speed on new episodes and even catch up on some of our old episodes, you can find us at therealnews.com. You can also follow our Facebook page “The Whole Bushel” as well as YouTube; we’re on YouTube as well. Alright, see y’all next time.