From Our Archives, an Interview With Ntozake Shange

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Over the past few weeks, I have begun a long project of trying to read through the Mother Jones archive, piece by piece. You can too, here. (Well, sorry, you can read from January 1995 onward. Don’t fret, that’s plenty.)

If you, like me, do some archive digging, I think you’ll find that magazine articles—both purposefully and accidentally—speak beyond their times. Consensus is conditional. The assumptions of 1995 can be glaringly out of step with today, or surprisingly close. These pieces serve as something like second drafts of history, or maybe first drafts of opinion. They not only tell us the story the author intended but also give us a peek at the world the author assumed the readers inhabited.

A mundane example: We thought our readers would want to know about a private eye who solves ecoterrorist attacks—that is, attacks on environmentalists (or their pets). I think this article speaks to Mother Jones, the ’90s, and the Bay Area just as much as it does to one Sheila O’Donnell, private eye. (It includes a regressive joke involving “Dick Tracy” puns, too.)

Here’s an example I enjoyed from our January 1995 issue, in the more timeless category: an interview with Ntozake Shange, a Black poet, playwright, and feminist writer who died in 2018. She segues from a discussion of batting down race science to an exchange about shifting language and norms. I think it still resonates today. Check it out:

Q: About this Bell Curve business—

A. Oh my God, it made me so mad. Do you believe that just because they can’t control us, they’re gonna say it’s Darwinian—[that] they’re better?

Q: It’s not that they are better, just smarter.

A: Well of course they are—we fed them! They took all the land, all the food—we ate chitlins and they ate beef! But who carried that nice food to them? And who is still talking and thinking? Now all they can say is that they’re better? It’s not even a new idea!

Q: Toni Morrison writes about the ways we try to get over, around, and underneath our slave history, but it’s still there. How do you deal with that?

A: I have spent my life undoing language until it works for me. We must not only repossess the language, we must deslaveryize it.

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DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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