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Kima Jones (Courtesy of Kima Jones)

Kima Jones, On Black Bodies And Being A Black Woman Who Writes

by Jairo Ramos
Apr 9, 2014

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Jairo Ramos

April is National Poetry Month — and at Code Switch, we like poems. We will be exploring a set of broad issues of race and ethnicity in modern poetry for the duration of the month.

Kima Jones, an emerging poet, has developed a strong presence in the literary world — and on social media. And to kick things off, she'll be guiding us through an audience-based Twitter poetry session this Wednesday. You can join us at 12 p.m. EST, and pitch in your own lines for our poem by tweeting at @NPRCodeSwitch and @Kima_Jones with the hashtag #CSPoetry.

When we first came up with the idea, one of the main goals of our poetry month project was to specifically seek out new poets of color. We wanted to share fresh voices that don't get heard as often: young poets who were livening up the literary landscape. That's when we found Kima Jones.

Jones is a 2013 PEN USA Emerging Voices Fellow and a 2012 Lambda Literary Fellow in poetry. In her work, she explores themes of racial and sexual identity in the modern world and the future (she describes herself as an Afrofuturist). Born and raised in Harlem, Jones believes her identity as a queer black woman is central to her poems — and the idea of isolating race from art is, well, not her favorite.

"I think it's bull- - - -," Jones says, laughing. "I am a black woman who writes. I don't think it's possible to separate the two. I don't think it's possible — my politics are around creating visibility for black people."

Jones' poetry often invokes a sense of intimate nostalgia — a warm thirst for a moment or a place that was, or that could have been. The verses change pace on a dime. They vibrate. Her work features a gamut of different contexts and settings — however, across many of her poems, one image recurs often: black bodies.

"I talk about the black body, first, as my own singular body as a black woman in the world," Jones says. "And then, the family unit as a body, the church unit as a body, the mosque as an open body — as a city, Harlem, itself as a black body."

Interview Highlights

On encountering poetry for the first time

I got into writing when my fourth-grade teacher introduced the Harlem Renaissance week project to the class, and she brought in some writers to talk to us more about the Harlem Renaissance. We started studying Langston Hughes. At that time, Walter Dean Myers also did a visit to our class, and we read his book Scorpions. ... And there was a poetry competition happening.

So the [teacher], she chose one girl and one boy who wrote the best poem and would read at the Schomburg [Center for Research in Black Culture] with Walter Dean Myers, and so we all were writing poems. My poem was chosen. So my first public reading of my life was at the Schomburg [Center] with Walter Dean Myers.

And I remember he signed my book, you know, "To Kima, a fellow writer and poet," and it kind of just shaped my thinking about my identity and who I was.

On Afrofuturism

It's an aesthetic, grown out of the idea, very simply, that there will be black people and people of color in the future. I mean, that's the very simple way to put it ... Afrofuturism is a way of writing ourselves into the world and into the future and being committed to a future that's also free of racism, and sexism, and capitalism and these things that have enslaved minority peoples. ...

It's imperative that we create the art that we want to see in the world, and that we write the future that we want. I mean, being realistic, right? Because you know certain things won't happen — but the first point of writing the future that I want is putting people of color in the damn future.

On black bodies

When we look at media, and we look the way black bodies are used — there has to be a different presentation in my art, and there has to be a different lens with which to look at them. And again, to humanize black people, because if we just look to TV or newspapers — or if we just take, for example, Hurricane Katrina, and the way they laid those children out in the street and just photographed them, it was horrible. It was deplorable to just see small black bodies laid out like that. You could liken it to a garbage bag. You can say, "God, have I ever seen a photograph of white children — even after something as devastating as a hurricane — laid out in the street and just photographed like that, no respect for the dead?" And you wouldn't have. ...

So I think in writing the black body is my way of trying to humanize what happens to the black body everywhere else and in other pieces of literature.

On the poem "Fresh"

"Fresh" was one of the first poems I wrote when I found out — so, I'm infertile. I cannot have children. And so it was very difficult for me. The diagnosis was very difficult for me. ... I'm the oldest of eight. My siblings have children; all my younger siblings have children. I don't.

I felt like one of two things was happening — first, that your grandmothers, and your aunts, your mom teaches you all these lessons about your body — and so that's where you get the birds and the bees. And the birds and the bees, they tell you that if you do this thing, this act, that this thing would happen. And we're warned against that. And so my rebuttal in the poem is: "But the bees lie, but the bees. ... " My grandmothers said this would happen, but someone lied, because this is not happening. ...

And then the second part: I was very close to my grandmother, and my feeling is that all of the wisdom that she's given me, all the life lessons, everything that I've learned from her — who will I give this to?... It was about me wanting to do something with the beautiful person that my grandmother was and with all that she's taught me.

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Brittney Griner puts up a shot against Japan during a 2013 preseason WNBA game in Phoenix. (Getty Images)

Coming Out In Basketball: How Brittney Griner Found 'A Place Of Peace'

Apr 8, 2014 (All Things Considered)

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Griner is taller than 99 percent of the American population.

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Brittney Griner is 23 years old, 6 feet 8 inches tall and one of the best female basketball players in the world. She was the WNBA top draft pick last year, and in college she set records for the most blocked shots in a season and the most career blocks in history — for male and female players. She's so good that the owner of a men's team — the Dallas Mavericks — has said he'd recruit her.

Now, Griner is also an author. She's co-written a new memoir, In My Skin, in which she describes being bullied and taunted as a kid for her height and athleticism.

She says, "Growing up, I always got 'She's a man,' or 'She plays too hard,' or 'There's just no way that she can be that good because, you know, a girl can't do that.' And I struggle with it a little bit. I'm like: Well, am I going too hard? And then I just realized, like, I'm a competitor. I want to go as hard as I can, and if I look like a guy out there playing ball, well, hey, I feel sorry for the opponent."

Sports writer Dave Zirin likens Griner's talent to that of Wilt Chamberlain or LeBron James. "She plays with a kind of emancipated abandon," he says, and he admires her openness about the sexism and homophobia she's encountered in the not-particularly-progressive world of college athletics. "She represents a break from the sexual McCarthyism in women's sports."

Griner came out as a lesbian while playing at Baylor University in Texas. There, she was a much beloved star, but Griner had no idea her school had a policy against homosexuality until her coach urged her to keep quiet about it. Griner disclosed her sexual orientation in interviews with and ESPN shortly before leaving college. Now she's made it something of a mission to address closet culture in women's sports.

"I had a girl come up and tell me how her coach basically told them that they could not be gay on their team," she says. "And I've heard stories of some coaches will not recruit you if you are."

Griner brings a defiant gender nonconformity to the court — and to the culture that surrounds it. Her distinctive fashion sense impresses even hard-core sports writers who don't generally care about such things.

"She dresses like a 1920s male dandy," Zirin marvels. "And it's pretty amazing to see. I don't know anybody who pulls off argyle socks quite like Brittney Griner."

She has shoulder-length braids and a ton of tattoos, but she looks to Ellen DeGeneres — known for her sleek, red carpet suits — as a fashion role model, because, she says, "It shows that we're not just big-baggy-clothes butch."

Griner proudly identifies as butch, and that makes her rare among women in the public eye. When Nike endorsed her as its first openly gay athlete, the company asked her to model its menswear line.

"It looks a little bit better on me, honestly, than some of the tighter female clothes," she says grinning.

So when the WNBA recently showed players possible new "sleek and sexy" uniforms — part of a plan to attract more men to the games — Griner was startled.

"The shorts came in short or extra short," she says. "As soon as I heard that — 'sleek and sexy' — I was like, 'Um, excuse me, I play basketball.' "

And it's basketball that brings in Griner's fans. Attendance at Phoenix Mercury home games shot up more than 30 percent since she joined the team, and ESPN2 decided to keep broadcasting WNBA games partly because of her popularity. Griner says all this would have been unimaginable to the middle school kid who once considered suicide because of the constant teasing about her looks and carriage.

"Now I want to stand out," she says. "I want to show off how big I am; I want to show off my long arms, my big hands — just loving myself."

She pauses, then adds: "It's just a place of peace."

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detail from cover of the divide (Courtesy of Random House)

In Book's Trial Of U.S. Justice System, Wealth Gap Is Exhibit A

Apr 6, 2014 (All Things Considered)

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Matt Taibbi is also the author of Griftopia, The Great Derangement, Smells Like Dead Elephants and Spanking the Donkey.

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Investigative journalist and author Matt Taibbi has long reported on American politics and business. With an old-school muckraker's nose for corruption, he examined the events leading up to the 2008 financial crisis in Griftopia. With Gonzo zeal, he described a two-party political system splintered into extreme factions in The Great Derangement.

And in his newest book, Taibbi sets out to explain what he thinks is a strange state of affairs:

"Poverty goes up. Crime goes down. The prison population doubles.
Fraud by the rich wipes out 40 percent of the world's wealth. The rich get massively richer. No one goes to jail."

The result of his investigation is The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap. The book explores the connections between growing income inequality and a justice system that Taibbi says disproportionately punishes the poor.

Although he found the subject matter disturbing, Taibbi tells NPR's Kelly McEvers that he took an odd sort of pleasure in writing the book.

"I thoroughly enjoy this topic in kind of a dark way," he says. "There's a kind of deviousness and brilliance that is on display in a lot of these things that is really fascinating to me."

Interview Highlights

On how he discovered 'the divide'

I was covering these gigantic Wall Street white-collar-criminal scandals, and I became interested in the concept of why nobody was going to jail, why we didn't have criminal prosecutions. And then it occurred to me that it's impossible to really talk about the gravity of that problem unless you know who is going to jail in the United States, and how those people go to jail and how that works.

What I ended up finding is that it's incredibly easy for people who don't have money to go to jail for just about anything. There's almost an inverse relationship between the ease with which you can put a poor person in jail for, say, welfare fraud, and the difficulty that prosecutors face when they try to put someone from a too-big-to-fail bank in jail for a more serious kind of fraud.

On media coverage of white-collar crime

Over time I think a kind of Stockholm Syndrome develops, it's kind of the same thing that happens with campaign reporters and candidates: You start to sort of sympathize with the people you cover in this weird subterranean, psychological way.

I think what ends up happening is these stories get written about, but they get written without outrage, or without the right tone, and they are also not written for the right audiences. They're written for Wall Street audiences who want to find out how this lawsuit turned out. They may not want to see those people thrown in jail, they just might be interested in seeing how far the government is willing to go this week in putting white-collar offenders in jail.

On comparing banks and people

The HSBC case was the biggest drug money laundering case in history. This is a bank that admitted to washing over $850 million for a pair of Central and South American drug cartels. They admit to this behavior, they pay a fine, no individual has to do a day in jail. All I really wanted to say was, here are our actors at the very top of our illegal narcotics business who are getting a walk from the government, a complete and total walk ...

I went to court that day, I asked around and said, "What's the dumbest drug case you saw today?" I found an attorney who was willing to put me in touch with a number of people who had been busted and thrown in jail for having a joint in their pocket.

It's not so much that it's so unfair that somebody who smokes a joint goes to jail. It's just that I think there's this weird psychological thing that we're developing where we just sort of look at one kind of offender and we think that person is appropriate for jail, and another kind of offender we just don't think that person is appropriate for jail increasingly, and that's what happened in this case.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit

'A Very Sordid Story'

In this audio clip, NPR's Kelly McEvers asks Matt Taibbi about the most salacious case in his book, The Divide. Taibbi tells the story of Fairfax Financial and the short-sellers who Fairfax alleges took revenge when a deal didn't go through as expected. The company sued in 2006. Taibbi says it's a great example of the judicial divide between the rich and poor. It's easy to think hedge fund managers can't be criminals, he says, because they're often seen as polite and refined. "[But] in many cases, they're really not," Taibbi says. "I mean, in this case, they're just as streety and gross as any other kind of criminal."

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Copyright(c) 2014, NPR
In his six-decade career, Peter Matthiessen has written 33 books, including The Snow Leopard and Shadow Country. (Courtesy of Riverhead Books)

'In Paradise,' Matthiessen Considers Our Capacity For Cruelty

by Tom Vitale
Apr 5, 2014 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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Snow Leopard detail from cover of In Paradise

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Editor's note: Peter Matthiessen died Saturday, shortly after this story published and just days before this latest novel, In Paradise, is due to be released.

At age 86, Peter Matthiessen has written what he says "may be his last word" — a novel due out Tuesday about a visit to a Nazi extermination camp. It's called In Paradise, and it caps a career spanning six decades and 33 books.

Matthiessen is the only writer to ever win a National Book Award in both fiction — for his last book, Shadow Country, and adult nonfiction for his 1978 travel journal, The Snow Leopard.

Matthiessen is filled with the vitality of past adventures as he leads a tour of his country-style home on the East End of Long Island. I visited him in March, on the day before he was to begin a round of experimental chemotherapy for cancer.

On the living room wall are a dozen large black-and-white photographs of New Guinea tribal warriors. The pictures were taken in 1961 — half by the author, the others by his traveling companion, Michael Rockefeller, who disappeared on that expedition, and may have been the victim of cannibals. Matthiessen wrote a book about that journey called Under the Mountain Wall — one of his many nonfiction chronicles of man and his relation to the natural world.

His new novel, In Paradise, is based on a different kind of journey — a trek into the Heart of Darkness. In 1996, Matthiessen, who is a Zen Buddhist, traveled to Poland on a meditation retreat. It took place at the former Nazi extermination camp at Auschwitz. What he saw floored him — he recalls the barbed wire, the watch towers, and the crematoriums.

"The gas chambers were all blown up at the end of the war, so they are simply these grim-looking pale ruins out in the distance," he says. "It's a very grim scene. And so it's the enormity of it that just stuns you the first time."

Matthiessen tried to capture that experience in a book of journals, but he says the writing was flat. So he cast the story as a novel. The hero of In Paradise was born in Poland to a Jewish mother, but taken to America as an infant and baptized. Now, with a faded photo in his pocket, he is returning — 50 years later — to search for his mother in the place where she may have perished:

In this empty place then, at the end of autumn, 1996, what was left to be illuminated? What could the witness of warm, well-fed visitors possibly signify? How could such "witness" matter, and to whom? No one was listening.

McKay Jenkins is editor of The Peter Matthiessen Reader and has also done research at a concentration camp in Austria. "The way he articulates the rage, the despair, the existential delirium when you're in a place like this was precisely what I felt," Jenkins says."... What he does in this book is that he captures the incredible brokenness that one experiences at this place," Jenkins says. "[Matthiessen's phrase ] 'broken-brained and wholly broken-hearted' is precisely the way one feels."

With In Paradise, Matthiessen's career has come full circle — from writing about the extinction of animals in his early nonfiction, to writing about the extinction of man. "Man has been a murderer forever," he writes.

"The number of people killed in the past century — human beings killing each other is phenomenal, you know?" Matthiessen says. "How has civilization — so called — come this far and people are still designing tools to kill each other? For no other purpose than killing. Why are we doing it? Why are we doing it?"

Matthiessen says he wants the readers of In Paradise to consider the potential for evil in all of us.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit

'A Very Sordid Story'

In this audio clip, NPR's Kelly McEvers asks Matt Taibbi about the most salacious case in his book, The Divide. Taibbi tells the story of Fairfax Financial and the short-sellers who Fairfax alleges took revenge when a deal didn't go through as expected. The company sued in 2006. Taibbi says it's a great example of the judicial divide between the rich and poor. It's easy to think hedge fund managers can't be criminals, he says, because they're often seen as polite and refined. "[But] in many cases, they're really not," Taibbi says. "I mean, in this case, they're just as streety and gross as any other kind of criminal."

Read full story transcript

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Copyright(c) 2014, NPR
detail from cover of pedestrianism (Courtesy of Chicago Review Press)

In The 1870s And '80s, Being A Pedestrian Was Anything But

Apr 3, 2014 (All Things Considered)

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weston Matthew Algeo lives in Mongolia. Walking The Walk: Fans look on as pedestrian Edward Payson Weston walks at a New York City roller rink in 1874. His unique stride was described as "wobbly." Dan O'Leary, "Champion Pedestrian of the World."

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We may think of baseball as America's national pastime, but in the 1870s and 1880s there was another sports craze sweeping the nation: competitive walking. "Watching people walk was America's favorite spectator sport," Matthew Algeo says in his new book, Pedestrianism.

"In the decades after the Civil War there was mass urbanization in the United States [with] millions of people moving into the cities," Algeo tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "And there wasn't much for them to do in their free time, so pedestrianism — competitive walking matches — filled a void for people. It became quite popular quite quickly."

Huge crowds packed indoor arenas to watch the best walkers walk. Think of it as a six-day NASCAR race ... on feet.

"These guys were walking 600 miles in six days," Alego says. "They were on the track almost continuously. They'd have little cots set up inside the track where they would nap a total of maybe three hours a day. But generally, for 21 hours a day, they were in motion walking around the track."

Interview Highlights

On what you saw at a pedestrian match

[For] six-day walking matches, the rules were pretty simple. They would just map out a dirt track on the floor of an arena — many of the matches took place at the first Madison Square Garden in New York — and the lap was about 1/7th or 1/8th of a mile. And you could only walk six days because public amusements were prohibited on Sundays. So beginning right after midnight on Sunday night/Monday morning, the walkers would set off and they would just keep walking until right up until midnight the following Saturday.

But people didn't go just to watch the people walk. It was a real spectacle. There were brass bands playing songs; there were vendors selling pickled eggs and roasted chestnuts. It was a place to be seen. There were a lot of celebrities who attended the matches: James Blaine, the senator from Maine, was a fan. So was future president Chester Arthur. Tom Thumb attended many matches. And so people went to see celebrities and see the spectacle, not just to watch the people walk.

On champion pedestrian Edward Payson Weston

[Edward Payson Weston] was one of the most famous pedestrians of the 19th century. He was ... a door-to-door bookseller from Providence, R.I. And ... in 1860, he made a bet with a friend on the presidential election. [He] bet that Lincoln would lose, and of course he lost the bet. The terms of the bet were that the loser had to walk from Boston to Washington in 10 days to see the inauguration. And Weston did this. It generated much publicity.

People were fascinated by the idea that somebody would walk from Boston to Washington in 10 days in the dead of winter on these horrible roads. And all along the way, large crowds came out to see him. And after the war, Weston, still famous, decided to capitalize on his fame by taking the act indoors. He would go to a roller rink, say, and attempt to walk 100 miles in 24 hours. And people would pay 10 cents just to come and watch him walk in circles for a day.

On Weston's competitor, Dan O'Leary

Dan O'Leary ... was the first great rival to Edward Payson Weston. I call them the Muhammad Ali/Joe Frazier of their generation. Weston was a flashy guy. He wore ruffled shirts and sashes and capes and carried a cane ... he really understood that it was about entertainment as much as it was an athletic event.

Dan O'Leary, on the other hand, was kind of a taciturn guy. He was an Irish immigrant from Chicago and he would walk ramrod straight, upright with his arms moving like pistons. He was sort of the Joe Frazier character in this. He was all about the competition. ...

He was really one of the first famous Irish-American athletes. He was from Chicago, which, of course, had a large Irish population. There was almost kind of an internationalist rivalry between the two of them, Weston representing old England and O'Leary representing new America — kind of pull yourself up by your bootstraps America. A guy that was self-made, came to the States with nothing and made the equivalent of a million dollars today engaging in these walking matches.

On Frank Hart, a great African-American pedestrian

He was actually an immigrant from Haiti who was a grocery store clerk in Boston and, on a whim, entered a six-day race in Boston and performed so well that he immediately moved up to the major leagues so to speak. ... "The Negro Wonder" is what many of the papers called him; it was always mentioned that he was black. But it was an opportunity for him and for other African-Americans at the time to take part in what was largely a white sport.

On the gambling and fixing scandals

Gambling was a big part of the allure, no doubt about it. You could bet on who would be the first pedestrian to drop out of the race, who would be the first pedestrian to, say, achieve 100 miles in a race. There were so many different ways you could gamble on the walking matches. And so the pedestrians themselves were often susceptible to attractive offers from gamblers to fix races.

On "performance enhancing drug" scandals

[Weston] was found to be chewing coca leaves while he walked in a race in 1876. This wasn't strictly illegal but it was considered unsportsmanlike and outright cheating at the worst. He admitted that he used coca leaves in a race, but he said it was under the advice of his doctor.

On how pedestrians drank champagne throughout the race

Champagne was considered a stimulant. And a lot of trainers — these guys had trainers — advised their pedestrians to drink a lot of champagne during the race. They thought that this would give them some kind of advantage. The problem was a lot of these guys would drink it by the bottle. That definitely was not a stimulant to say the least.

On how bicycles took over pedestrianism as the popular spectator sport

In 1885, an Englishman named John Starley invented what is called the safety bicycle. Before the safety bicycle, bicycles were the penny farthings — with the ginormous front wheel and the tiny little back wheel. And the penny farthings weren't very nimble or fast, but the safety bicycle, which is the bicycle we know today, these were much more nimble, much faster and they were much more interesting to watch race around a track for six days than the pedestrians just walking.

It sort of went from a NASCAR at superslow motion to a NASCAR at slow motion. And the other advantage of the bicycle races is that especially at the end, when the competitors were completely sleep deprived, there would be spectacular crashes, and of course the crowd enjoyed that a lot.

On the lasting legacies of pedestrianism

For one, the whole idea of corporate sponsorship ... so prevalent in modern sports really began with pedestrianism. Pedestrians had lucrative sponsorship deals. Dan O'Leary was the spokesman for a brand of salt. John Hughes, another pedestrian, was sponsored by the National Police Gazette, a popular newspaper, and he actually raced with a shirt that had the paper's logo on it. But for a more concrete example, you can go to London. The Royal Agricultural Hall was the site of many great six-day races involving Americans and Brits, but it is one of the few tangible, physical remnants of the great walking matches of the 1870s and 1880s.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit

'A Very Sordid Story'

In this audio clip, NPR's Kelly McEvers asks Matt Taibbi about the most salacious case in his book, The Divide. Taibbi tells the story of Fairfax Financial and the short-sellers who Fairfax alleges took revenge when a deal didn't go through as expected. The company sued in 2006. Taibbi says it's a great example of the judicial divide between the rich and poor. It's easy to think hedge fund managers can't be criminals, he says, because they're often seen as polite and refined. "[But] in many cases, they're really not," Taibbi says. "I mean, in this case, they're just as streety and gross as any other kind of criminal."

Read full story transcript

Missing some content? Check the source: NPR
Copyright(c) 2014, NPR

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