When “your ears are tingling from the inside out”: Addena Sumter-Freitag on Storytelling and Recording Life, from Stage to Page (February 2009)

by Christine Lyons



Addena Sumter-Freitag is a 7th generation African Canadian. She grew up in Winnipeg’s North End, and has lived all across Canada. Addena is well known for her provocative poetry and powerful performances and has been likened to Maya Angelou.


Christine Lyons is a PhD student in the department of English at University of British Columbia. Her areas of interest include: contemporary Canadian, First Nations, and Métis poetry, and theories of orality, aurality, oral history, storytelling.


Please note that the audio version of this interview is not identical to the transcription due to editing.


Christine Lyons (CL): So, I’m here with Addena Sumter-Freitag, storyteller, poet, and playwright who grew up in the North End of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Addena’s poetry has been published as a chapbook, Black, Brown, and Still Blue, and has been featured in such non-fiction as Women’s Bodies/ Women’s Lives published by Sumach Press. Recently, Addena’s one-woman play, Stay Black and Die—originally performed in 1995 with the Edison Electric Company Theatre in Vancouver, British Columbia—was published  with Commodore Books, Vancouver, BC. Addena’s new book of poetry and creative non-fiction, titled Back in the Days, is forthcoming in 2009 from Wattle and Daub Press.

In Stay Black and Die, Addena gives her audience the multi-voiced story of a girl called Penny growing up in 1950s and 1960s North Winnipeg. While the primary voice speaking to the audience is that of Penny—at various ages and stages in her life—the voices of Penny’s mother, father, siblings, friends, and others also inhabit her character as she moves through telling story-to-story. The play also includes stage directions to play much 50s and 60s pop, soul, and R&B and the references to these songs provide a vibrant soundscape to the play. I met with Addena at University of British Columbia in December 2008 to discuss the play’s multi-voices and aurallayers and the challenges of translating such provocative performance from the stage to the page.

So, First of all, thanks for meeting with me today!

Addena Sumter-Freitag (ASF): Mmm hmm… you’re welcome! Hey, that’s a good introduction. [laughter]…

CL: I… well… hopefully [laughter]! It’s really great to meet and talk with you after hearing your performance at the Shortline Reading series in October and after having a chance to read the play. I’m really sad that I didn’t get to see the original performance…

ASF: Yeah me too!

CL: It sounds like it was a one time, great opportunity…

I noticed—and I’m really fascinated by this—I noticed in the notes to the play, you talked about how the script was an adaptation from letters you had recorded on tape to a friend of yours, Beverly. And so… as a reader and as a listener, I feel like this really comes through in reading the play and in your performance, the small bit that I did see. So, as a reader and a listener I feel like this work really captures that process from, I think, the recording and the sending, and then the transcription; and it’s funny because we’re recording this interview which is then going to be transcribed.

ASF: Yeah, right! [laughter] Exactly!. We’ll bring those words to life!

CL: Yeah, exactly!  So, I guess hearing you in October, and keeping in mind that I wasn’t around for the original staging of the play, I just wonder at the way you were able to transform the voices on the page, so that even in reading the play, it really came to life on the page: the layering of the voices and the references to music, especially, work that way, even though you can’t hear them. So, I think the book, Stay Black and Die, really does occupy a space between sound and the page. And I wondered if, to start, you could talk a little about that process of transcribing the recordings and maybe also about adapting the transcriptions to the play script…

ASF: Mmm hmm. Well, transcribing the recordings was actually a surprise to me, you know. Because, like I had said, the recordings were like letters to my friend Beverly. And she and I have been friends since we were young, and we have a way of playing… a way that, you know, involves copying people… And, I’m a storyteller. I come from the best, the greatest storyteller in the world, which is my mother; and for me, telling these stories were so natural that once I started, I was finding that writing them to her they didn’t  come out fast enough;  so I thought, well maybe I’ll just make a tape—and of course back then it was a cassette—and talk to her. So, at first I would talk and it would be: “Hi Beverly, da da da…,” ‘cause, you don’t know what to say to this, this tape machine—

CL: machine, yeah [laughter]…

ASF: machine. And then I would start and something would click, and I’d get into a story and I would just go. And that would lead to another one. And I’d run back and click it on and just go. So, so this was how it originally started. And I never thought, you know, to write them, as a script because to me they were just letters and they were gone, because I posted them—until, years later, I saw Beverly and she pulled out this big box of letters and the tapes and everything and I thought, “Oh my God”; and then I was listening to them and I thought, “Oh I gotta write this down; this is just so funny.”

CL: Yeah, yeah…

ASF: And, so then I started writing them. And in my head, at that point in my life, I wasn’t a writer—

CL: —Ok—

ASF: —I was a storyteller, and to me they were quite different. You know what I mean, like, the aural, oral was very familiar to me. The writing part was not, and so then, the stories themselves, they just fell onto the paper. And the voices came so natural because, you know, like my mother, I mimic everything to entertain, she’s the greatest entertainer. (She was.) And, that’s how the voices came through.

CL: That’s really interesting. Yeah, I know what you mean when you sort of have this mediation, like we have here recording our voices. It’s a bit strange and not like conversation you’re going to have in passing when you don’t know that mediation is there recording your voice.

I guess then, my next question would be, as someone who is familiar with storytelling but not writing [stories], how does your conception of a listener, or audience, or reader, maybe, differ between the three of them—or do they? Was that something you thought about as you were preparing the script?

ASF: Hmm, that’s a really hard question. Let me see, I’m just going to answer what I think and tell me if I answered you… When I was preparing the script, all I did at first was transcribe it, everything from the tape. And then [laughter]—I’m picturing this process, this is when I first went to university, this was how I wrote as well—so then, everything was typed out and there were maybe a hundred sheets of paper, and I lined them up, and I would go up and in between them, and look at them and I would give the pieces names. I’d go: “Oh, Delinko’s store… Oh, the landlord… ” And then I would look at them all, then I said, “Where does it begin?” And the thing for me was, waking up everyday, and starting in the house with her. So this is where I started, waking up in the mornings.

And then it would flow, along. And that’s how I used to write everything, was to record it, then write it. People would say “Oh, Addena, blah blah blah, she’s a writer,” and I thought, “[quiet gasp] They’re calling me a writer; they’re saying I’m a writer.” [laughter] and I thought, “Damn! I’m a writer!”

CL: [laughter] You’re a writer, yeah!

ASF: [laughter] And I realized, I’ve always been a writer, I’ve been writing since I was twelve, I’ve got poems and stuff—and actually I’m writing some of those now. Except, until someone else said I was a writer, you know, in my mind, I wasn’t.

CL: So that was a turning point, shift, or transformation…

ADS: Yeah. And now, it’s funny because when I still write it’s first on a page—

CL: Now?

ASF: —with a pen, yeah, or a pencil, or lipstick. [laughter]  and on what ever I have… yeah. On an air sickness bag [laughter]… And then I take it and, you know, go to the computer with it. When I sit at the computer I can edit that way once I’ve started, you know what I mean?

CL: Yeah…

ADF: My soul’s not connected to that [laughter] to that screen yet.

CL: Oh, I feel that too, for sure… especially when I’m forming ideas, I know the computer is not where that happens, it’s in talking and writing things down.

ASF: And see this is why I think people go, “Oh, I loved your book,” or “I love your poetry, it’s just blah blah blah, the voices are…” And it’s because they come from a voice. See, I think most people—well I shouldn’t say what I think most people think (ah yeah, I’ll say it, what the hell). I think most people, when they read something they’ve already conceived something in their mind of what it should be, you know? When they—I’m thinking when they read my work, poems or stories, the voices come out at them. And it’s, I don’t know, somehow it jumps out more from a voice speaking to them. So the storyteller is in front of them, it’s not: they’re taking these words off the paper.

CL: No, no, it originated with that voice.

ASF: And it makes a different connection.

CL: Well it certainly came through for me in reading… that’s a really interesting place to go. I was thinking—kind of related to that, actually—I’m really interested in writers like, we’ve talked about Wayde Compton whose included aural material like a CD, and he cites a bunch of Black Soul, Blues, Rap, and R&B artists, and he has the “Reinventing Wheel,” which is a performance of itself; and Gregory Scofield—I may have mentioned him when we were chatting the other day—whose work, I Knew Two Métis Women, also uses, or has multi-layered voices and includes the lyrics to Old Country Music, in his book. And so, I’m wondering, your book seems to also have that connection that I think these two books also have and so I’m wondering if you could talk about the soundtrack of the play, and how you came to conceive of the page, how the page would represent the music that was in the play, especially the stage direction—that fading in and out and that kind of thing.

ASF: Mmm hmm, mmm hmm. It’s because music is such a part of our life, and food [laughter] you know, people remember. They might forget so many details, about an incident, but they remember the song that was playing.

CL: Mmm hmm, mmm hmm.

ASF: You know they remember the first time they ever tasted dolmades, you know. And so, those kind of things—even when you’re going, “Mmm, mmm”—those things give you that, “Mmm” feeling, and it’s… You know you can walk into a dance—what we called “Canteens” in Winnipeg—and your first slow dance, you know? And say the song was, “Stay.” You could just feel, the music starting inside you and you remember, “My God! ‘Stay’ was playing,” and you start singing to yourself,  “Staaay, just a little—” and you can feel how you swayed, and it just brings everything alive, you know your ears are tingling from the inside out.

CL: And your heart’s a little…

ASF: Yeah, it’s just, it shoots you right back there. So the music, even if someone doesn’t know that song, if they thought, “Well, what the hell was that song?” and they went—you know now they can go online—and they went online and played it, they would go, “Ohhh…” And it would even become more alive for people who were from that era or who have heard of that song. Or, you know old song collectors or something would immediately know what it was and identify. But, the music was so important—

CL: In terms of marking those moments…

ASF: Those moments, yeah. And marking time. And even eras.

CL: So the soundtrack was determined by the events as opposed to you picking songs that seemed to fit with it?  It was really embodied like that, with memory?

ASF: Right, right. And I mean, see, I wasn’t there for, you know some of the stories. Some of the stories come from my brother. You know they’re coming through me, but actually my brother’s memory. Some of them are my mother’s memory, you know, coming through me again. And it seems as if I were alive for ever [laughter]. Lots of them aren’t my stories, you know.

So the music—well my brother for instance, in the book goes to the church, well, you know it would be gospel music. But I didn’t know what song that he would have heard, or what music. I knew what would have been gospel and I would know, you know, the beat [snaps fingers]. And, I have a friend here who is a wonderful singer, Lovey Eli, and I asked her if she would record a song that I could use in the play. And she recorded, “Soon As I Can See Jesus,” and the beat, it fit for me ‘cause it was, [clap clap clap] “As soon as I can see Jesus… [clap clap],” you know like this, and it was there and, you know, it might not have been the song that was playing when Leslie went into the church, but it was the song that gave life to the whole scene of him going to the church for the first time and seeing Black people, you know, so many Black people.

CL: Such a crystal moment for him, a crystallization.

ASF: Yeah…

CL: Yeah, music really does function that way.

ASF: Oh, for sure.

CL: I think that’s a huge part of why this text is able to come to life on the page. Some of these songs are familiar and so as readers/listeners we have our own associations with those songs. I hear “Locomotion” and I’m with my cousins in 1984 dancing around the living room.

ASF: That’s right!

CL: It’s a really provocative way to both historicize but also personalize the play.

Thinking about Wayde Compton’s and Gregory Scofield’s work which are very, kind of, localized in BC and Western Canada, and your work which is set it Winnipeg also has that local feel. You know, a friend of mine, my housemate is actually from Winnipeg and [when I talked to her about the book] she was, “Oh Cathedral, I know exactly were that is,” and she was telling me about the neighbourhood. It’s very cool to get that local feel of it—

ASF: See, the local feel was more of a regional feel that Karina Vernon—who is one of the three publishers of Commodore Books—she actually wrote her dissertation on Black prairie writers. She wanted to feature writers that came, you know, not from the East which we’re so used to—you know, most everything comes from Toronto, Ontario, or Montreal; and Wayde, and other people have done works from BC writers. So, it was like there was this void for her of Black prairie writers. And there are lots of us on the prairies—you might not see us on the prairie—but we’re there. So, because of Karina, Stay Black & Die became published.

CL: That’s really interesting.

ASF: And the other Black prairie writer was Cheryl Foggo, and she wrote Pouring Down Rain.

CL: And she’s also a, uh, from the prairies—

ASF: —from the prairies, yeah.

CL: Moving from there, that’s interesting, because we get this kind of transcanadian feel—

ASF: Yeah, nice eh!?

CL: like were driving along the transcanada—

ASF: Exactly!

CL: I noticed in my research there was an exhibit called Encre Noir or Black Ink… and that was online and featured writing by Black Canadians in Montreal and Quebec, and they also showed it overseas and in Switzerland online… So I was wondering, related to that project, what you think about your work in conversation with a transcanadian or a transnational community, even—and how your work speaks to their work as opposed to that more local level, ‘cause we’ve talked a little bit about the local. But wondered if you thought there was any difference between the global or local [in your work], whether there was a divide, or whether it’s mostly speaking to the same issues.

ASF: Hmm, ok. [pause] I think it’s—how would I say it? I think some of the material, or the subject or circumstance, is unique [pause] but, lots of it is very universal. I think the uniqueness might come in—people might learn some of the intricacies of being Black. Some of the contradictions, [pause].

CL: I’m thinking especially in terms of community, because in the play, you get this sense of a sort of community from your past, right?

ASF: Right, yeah…

CL: And your readers—

ASF: I think it might break down some of the assumptions about Black families, Black culture—differences between Black Canadians and Black Americans. ‘Cause most people are familiar with, you know, Black American experience because it’s in your face. But also, there’s the universality, there’s the commonness of a crazy mother, living in a tough neighbourhood, your girlfriend, your first dance, the first time you feel somebody press close to you with a hard-on, the bully picking on you [laughter]. Some of the tragic things that happen in your life that are so common to everyone. And this is why I think a lot of people really embrace the book is because it’s both so different and it’s so, everyone. It just brings back the funniest, scariest, most wonderful, crazy memories. And this is why I love it too. I do, I love the piece. When I performed it—and I performed it so many times, everywhere—every night was different, every single performance,

CL: —had a variation…

ASF: yeah, yeah, because, you know, you’re sitting there and and you think, “Oh, my God, I should—I could have turned,” and something else will come into you when you’re performing. It’s just crazy the life it has.

CL: Beyond the text?

ASF: Yeah beyond the text.

CL: And you definitely get a feel for that just listening to you speak right now.

ASF: It excites me, I just really love it.

CL: I want to maybe get into a little bit of the—ah, shift gears a little bit. So, the title is Stay Black and Die, which I think is brilliant. Penny’s mother calls it a “Negro proverb” (15)—

ASF:  Ah, I call it a “Negro proverb”—

CL: You call it a “Negro proverb”? Alright, alright—

ASF: She just spouted them—

CL: Ok—

ASF: Us kids said she had the craziest sayings in the world. And actually, when we went back to Nova Scotia—like my dad was a porter so we had a pass on the railroad and we’d go back in the summer. All my aunts and everybody down in Nova Scotia, they talked the same way. And so, I thought, “Oh my God!” But you know they’re just sayings passed down, and down, and down. And uh…

CL: everybody kind of knows it?

ASF: Everybody kind of knew what they meant except us kids. We were like, “What the hell does that mean?” So we used to call them, behind her back, “Negro proverbs.” So, “stay Black and die,” was one of those proverbs.

CL: It’s such an apt title. That moment in the play where Penny explains the circumstances, she was talking to her mom about really wanting something and her mom says, “Girl, don’t you tell me ‘bout what you HAVE to do, ‘cause there’s only two things in this world you HAVE to do, and that’s stay Black and die!” (15).  And it’s this moment where, I think, it’s a powerful moment in the play and it’s no surprise that it’s the title because it really encapsulates the way the play actually takes to task that polite brand of Canadian multicultural racism. That—you know, so for example, in contrast to the 80s and 90s CBC Heritage Moments—you know, dramatizing pioneering Canadians helping Black Americans through the underground railroad—I think your book gives us a more embodied record of a historical moment, one that emphasizes the impossibility of polite colour-blindness, which I think it great. And I’m wondering your thoughts on that and how you sort of thought about the incorporation of that “proverb” and the way that it works a stereotype to be at once disturbingly familiar, but also really comedic and heartrending.

ASF: First of all, the title really disturbed people and confused some people. I remember, I think I was in Australia performing, and a woman said that her friend wouldn’t come to the play because it said, “stay Black and die,” and she thought that was negative, that it meant something like, stay Black and you’re gonna die, or you should die, or whatever it was. And to me, it’s funny and so profound you know what I mean?  And so, I wouldn’t change it; I wouldn’t change it.  And once you read the book, see the play, whatever, it comes to life, and you go, “Oh.” Except it also gives you a hint that you’re going to delve into something that polite Canadians don’t usually delve into. Like, I come from a seventh-generation Canadian family, and yet, people don’t know what that means. People don’t know what struggles we have, and still have as opposed to, you know, the American struggles of the Black people that were in your face. The book talks about when there was a race riot in Nova Scotia. And they were coming down to the district where my mother and everyone lived on the island to kill all of the Black people. And, not being able to get a job, not being able to get an apartment, just millions of things that was life for us, the opportunities that were lost, the possibilities that could never happen. Nobody talks about those. When my brother—who is a brilliant man, he still is [laugh]—finished school, I mean, it had nothing to do with finances, he could never think of going to university. For what, you know what I mean? He was the first person in my family who didn’t have, you know, like a menial job. He went for it, went for it and got to be an engineer on the railroad but he started out as a fireman. But before that, you could be a porter, you could shine shoes or, you know, you didn’t work. And that was just the reality of things, in my lifetime.

And then, in the next generation, my nephew Toby, for instance, went to university and got a degree in microbiology—which he doesn’t do now, but—because the world had changed that much in twenty years, like the Canadian world. It didn’t mean that getting a job would be any easier but he had the possibility to get one. And, Stay Black and Die, to me  gives a small glimpse of Black Canadian experience: the fun parts and a little teeny glimpse of some of the tragic parts. You know, my intent is to identify, not to blame because there’s just no point in that. But I think people should know, they should be able to look—my intent was to bring people closer, if they have the desire.

CL: And I think you do it in such a way that—I know with the character of the mother who is at once, sort of: she understands that you shouldn’t call the guy that owns the store down the street a “Jew.” But then she turns around and to her husband about a Black immigrant woman that she sees on the bus—

ASF: —and talks about the Jamaicans—

CL: —and you’re like, “Oh my God.”

ASF: [laugh] My mother was the most amazing woman in the world. She could be teaching you a lesson on something and in her explanation, do exactly what she was telling you not to do. Like, you see, that’s another example of the intricacies, and complications, and craziness of Black experience, Canadian Black experience, ‘cause I don’t know about American Black experience. You could have so many people that were, you know, racist and prejudiced against Jews—and I would think, as a kid, well then you wouldn’t be racist—but my mother hated Jamaicans and Caribbeans. First of all, she didn’t know them, and knew nothing about them except what she had heard. And when she was young, people would say, “those people live in trees,” and shit like this, so these myths were in her head. Also, she didn’t like them because when they came over, they were different than us. They wore bright colours and they were boisterous, and ‘out there’ and open and they weren’t quiet. And people looked at them and that was another thing, when you’re Black you don’t want people looking at you, you just want to go and weave your way though people and, just “leave me alone.” And so, that brought people to look at her and, so, she was embarrassed, and ashamed. And Black experience has been a whole bunch of shame for a whole bunch of reasons—this is what she didn’t want. She didn’t know anything about them. It’s like anybody else whose ignorant, and prejudiced, and racist. She couldn’t stand them, but she knew that you’re not supposed to be “racist.” But to her, because they were Black, it wasn’t like being racist. You know what I mean? It was craziness. Us kids knew that you shouldn’t call a guy a “Jew”—in a demeaning way, because people would, “Oh that Jew.” That definitely doesn’t mean they like him ‘cause he’s Jewish. You could say someone is a “Jew”, but there’s a difference from saying “that Jew”. She’d slap you in the face for saying that, even if the other kids had said it, and tell you you’re not supposed to say “Wops, or Frogs, or blah, blah, blah,” and then she’d proceed to tell you how “cheap those Englishmen and Scotsmen were”, and, refer to a “Jamaican on the bus as, that ugly Black thing”—

CL:  She seemed to understand that there was a hierarchy, even in a society that’s pretending—even in a society that isn’t supposed to be racist, there’s still those complexities and those hierarchies—

ASF: —and there’s complexities and hierarchies in the Black community. I wrote a poem called “Skintifity,” in which I say everything depends on the colour of your skin. And when you’re Black, the lighter-skinned you are, the more privilege you get, more white people will think you’re pretty, because you’re not quite Black, the thinner nose you have, the hair—I could talk, like, for hours about hair. And so, these kinds of things also played such a big part in, in her life. That people could get a glimpse of that, maybe just so that they could have a dialogue, you know what I mean, or ask somebody, “what about this,” what about “hair turning back, what does it mean?” you know and why is that bad? You know, I was never allowed to go to camp, my whole life.  All my friends went to camp but my mother would never let me because I couldn’t go swimming, because my hair would turn back—

CL: Uh huh…

ASF: —and she didn’t want anybody to see my hair going nappy because that was a shameful thing, right—because I had to straighten it with a straightening comb, if I wanted it straight. So, all my life, I couldn’t go to camp, I mean just, biz—

CL: —bizarre

ASF: —bizarre things, you know. Hundreds of them, hundreds of them.

CL: Which made total sense for her, in her sort of, you know, how she wanted to see you go about your life.

ASF: Yeah, yeah. You know, like never eating watermelon, you know.

CL: Huh, yeah, yeah…

ASF: To this day, it’s out on plates on buffets and shit, and I go, “Ahhh, nuh uhh [laughter] nooo”

CL: —not so much

ASF: [laughter] what a horrible thing!

CL: I’m really looking forward to your new book, and I actually wanted to ask you a little bit about that. We talked a little bit about it the other day. Now, it’s called Back in the Days and I wondered what you thought about—I don’t know what our time is like—I thought it would be really neat if, maybe as a conclusion, you could tell us a little bit about the new book, and—if you felt compelled to—possibly read something of it. I know you performed a poem for me the other day—

ASF: Right, right. [laughter]

CL: —not to put you on the spot, don’t feel like you have to at all. But, yeah, talk a little about the book. We talked a little bit about having a—you had mentioned you were excited about the idea of putting a CD with it. Yeah, if there were any thoughts that you had or would like to share, or give us a little preview of the new book.

ASF:  Right, ok, great. Well it’s called Back in the Days and it’s from the voice, and head, and heart of the same girl, Penny. And stories—now, see, it’s sort of the same style, it’s stories of her mother; because some of the stories were, you know, about the bootleggin’ joints and things like that, stories from her sister, umm, “Mamma Cooked the Most Wonderful Dinner for Christmas” is one of the stories but it’s my sister’s story, who I actually asked permission if I could tell it—it’s so sad. And, that’s—well, I wasn’t born, and so it sounds like she was there for everything. And then some of her stories—a lot of poetry that is related to growing up ‘back in the day’ or the mother’s ‘back in the day’ ‘cause there’s poems about the Korean war and the soldiers in the Korean war. And the first soldier in my family, my mom’s brother in the First World War. And so, the poems and stories talk about ‘back in the day’ but the day goes, you know, way back and forth, and back and forth, like that.

CL:  It’s this prolonged time—

ASF: Yeah, yeah. They’re fun, they’re fun. I really like them. I always like my stuff, you know. I like it! [laughter]

CL: That’s good—a good feeling to have!

ASF: And so, it will do that. And what started it was, I wanted to do a book of poetry and it started one way, “Ok, I’ll present these poems”. And, you know, “will you accept them?”  And what they [the publishers] said was, “Well a lot of the poems they have, sort of a theme, you know, of the days gone by. What about if you just did poems and stories related to the girl of the family back in the days” and stuff like that. So, then I took a whole bunch of material out that didn’t relate and it started taking—

CL: taking shape—

ASF: yeah, taking shape. But the whole thing came from a poem that I actually wrote for some youth—I work for Urban Native Youth Association at a safe house. And the kids that come there, we tell them, you know, not to swear while they’re there. Which is, you know, ridiculous, ‘cause everybody swears. But you can’t have like seven kids all in the house swearing, it just makes too much disturbance and craziness. Anyway, a lot of them also play rap music and their favorite is, Tu Pac. They’re playing their music and they go, “Can I play this?” And I say, “You can play it if it doesn’t  say, ‘nigger, nigger, bitch, whore, or suck my dick. So, if it does, don’t play it.”  Which, I mean, they don’t play anything, because most rap songs say that shit. And what I was trying to tell them is, you know, things used to be different. And they go, “Well, how come I can’t say ‘nigger,’ even so-and-so says it?”. And I say, “You can’t say it. Because you don’t  know how many people I had to kick their ass, for saying that? You know how many fights I had because of that? You know how much history is behind that word?”  I don’t care who says it, I don’t care if they like it or not. I don’t like it. I’ll never like it. You can’t make me like it. And it disturbs me to my soul, you know. So then I went home one night and I wrote the poem, “Back in the Days” for the youth.

CL: And that’s where that came from.

ASF: That’s where it came from. If I can remember it, I can tell it to you.

CL:  That would be great.


Back in the Days[1]

Friday nite meant all of us met up
And we’d be ‘stylin’
Fixin’ to dance the Madison
And Jive ‘like there was no tomorrow’.

Back in the days when a Bitch was a dog
And Nigger was a fightin’ word.

And all the Canadian guys would stand around and posture
And ‘toss a dance challenge’ to the American G.I.s’ who came to town to take all their girls
(Not that they wanted us Black girls
Before the American guys came ‘on the scene’).

Back in the days when a Bitch was a dog
And Nigger was a fightin’ word

One night
Some White guys surrounded Bunny Lane outside
I think they figured they could ‘take on’ this slightly built little Black guy.

They sure didn’t like Black guys!
(Cause these days they took all the girls
And won every dance contest
No problem.)

Back in the days when a Bitch was a dog
And Nigger was a fightin’ word.

Well Bunny didn’t run.
He didn’t cower,
And he didn’t say a word.

He just backed up carefully
And turned in a circle slowly
(to survey how many of the guys surrounding him were gonna fight him).
Then he took off his shoes
And socks
And crouched in a Kung Fu ‘Tiger Pose’
And gestured with a few short ‘Come on, bring it on’ motions with his hands
And all those guys took off like flies.

God!  I wish you coulda been there.
We had so much fun!

[1] “Back in the Days,” from Addena Sumter-Freitag’s forthcoming collection titled, Back in the Days appears here with permission of Wattle and Daub Press.