|Jimi Hendrix 1942 - 1970|
|Ai 1947 - 2010|
The Obsessive Reader was sad to hear that Ai Ogawa, a poet whose work I admire, died earlier this year. The lack of value assigned to poetry in our culture was reflected by how hidden the news of her death was; I found out by accident while doing some research.
Ai - a professor at Oklahoma State University, published widely in literary journals, recipient of the National Book Award, American Book Award, the Lamont Poetry Award of the Academy of American Poets, grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Bunting Fellowship Program at Radcliffe College and the National Endowment for the Arts - left behind a wonderful legacy of books. Her poetry is nearly all written in the form of monologues by real historical figures or imaginary characters. Her poetic vision has been called "fierce," "uncompromising" and "bleak." Her work ranges over the world; she gave voice to murderous and desolate souls, a Nazi during "Kristallnacht," J. Edgar Hoover, Trotsky's assassin, the Atlanta child murderer, and ordinary Americans lost in sexual morass and racial traps, witnesses to wars, victims of economic greed, saints and psychotics. There is humor, even glimpses of redemption in her poems, but, as Native American poet and musician, Joy Harjo wrote, Ai's "poems are frightening, but necessary."
the truth is always changing,
always shaped by the latest
collective urge to destroy.
So I sit here,
gnawed down by the teeth
of my nightmares.
My soul, a wound that will not heal.
From "The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer"
In musing about the lives and artistic contributions of poet Ai and musician Jimi Hendrix, out there on the edge, I realized that both claimed Native American ancestry, Ai said she was part Choctaw, Hendrix said he was part Cherokee. both refused to inhabit racial categories imposed by our limited culture.
Ai was born Florence Anthony, the product of
"a scandalous affair" between her mother and a
Japanese man. She changed her name to Ai Ogawa.
Ai means "love" in Japanese.
We will probably never know if Ai or Hendrix actually could count among their forbears members of American Indian tribes. Besides, being "Indian" is not strictly a matter of genealogy, or what is crudely referred to as "blood." More than anything, it's an issue of culture, belonging to a culture, having knowledge about that culture and respect for the heritage. Scholar Henry Louis Gates wrote last year,
That Cherokee Princess that family lore says is your great-great-grandmother most probably never existed. The sad truth is that the overwhelming percentage of African-American people have very little Native American ancestry in their DNA. ..Here are the facts: Only 5 percent of all black Americans have at least 12.5 percent Native American ancestry, the equivalent of at least one great-grandparent.
African Americans...are a racially mixed or mulatto people—deeply and overwhelmingly so. Fact: Fully 58 percent of African-American people, according to geneticist Mark Shriver at
Hendrix's father, who raised him,
changed his son's name from Johnny Allen
to James Marshall Hendrix.
One of his early stage names was "Jimmy James."
People whose concept of themselves is largely dependent on their racial identity and superiority feel threatened by a multiracial person…I wish I could say that race isn’t important. But it is...This is a fact which I have faced and must ultimately transcend. If this transcendence were less complex, less individual, it would lose its holiness.I think what's most important about Ai and Jimi Hendrix is that they defied expectations imposed on African Americans; both refused to inhabit racial categories imposed by our limited culture. As artists, they teach us that it's possible to move beyond the edge, speak in an original voice, and discover beauty in all its forms. They show us that beauty as an aesthetic category isn't limited to what's pleasing or known; it can be awful as well as awe-inspiring, it can shake you up, or appear alien. What Ai and Hendrix seemed to know: the possibilities of beauty are infinite.
As individuals and creators not easily defined in a society that likes its categories - especially racial categories - black, white and dumbed down, Ai and Jimi Hendrix were American artists, who in their lifetime and through their legacy could say with Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass,
Every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you...
I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself...
In all people I see myself...
I embody all presences outlaw’d or suffering...
I am large—I contain multitudes.