Listen: Ramona Austin, black poet

D. Smith presents a profile of Black poet Ramona Austin. Feature includes reading by Austin at opening and close of segment. There is also a short interview, where she discusses her thoughts on poetry and how race plays into her writing.

Austin will perform a one woman show at Macalester College, St. Paul. She teaches English and poetry in the Minneapolis school system.


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RAMONA AUSTIN: Hit that street. Head down hat cocked to the perfect angle of impossible balanced, heels raised and clicking like insane castanets and long brown jitter bopping fingers. Hit that street and fight it down. Walk that lean tight, but stroll that means danger, and thighs that love to quickly. Hit that street, and make it. Head down hat cocked, dreams flying like curls of smoke, touch the sky, and gone.

SPEAKER: That was Ramona Austin doing one of the poems from her One Woman show to be presented at Macalester College's Weyerhaeuser Chapel today. A native of Chicago, Ms. Austin holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in theater directing. I asked her what factors influenced her in turning away from her chosen fields to concentrate on poetry.

RAMONA AUSTIN: Actually, I haven't turned away from those fields. What I'm doing in terms of this program, it is a presentation, is a dramatic performance. So it's theater. I've been training for theater. I've been in theater for quite a while. And my training as an English teacher gives me an appreciation of literature that I hope I've brought to the show. It also makes it possible for me when I go into colleges and do this program to do lectures, and I can cover it from various angles. I can cover it from a drama class or take an English class or take a sociology class.

So as far as influence is concerned, I think that there I can go back to my family in terms of poetry because we were always great readers. And so I was given an appreciation for literature. And I remember my great-grandmother reciting poetry to us. So it isn't something that I consider a drag. I see it as something very much alive, and I hope that I've been able to translate that in terms of what I do. I have had people come up and say, wow. They really enjoyed it, and it's a whole new look and poetry they never seen before.

SPEAKER: When she's not on tour, Ramona is a substitute teacher with the Minneapolis school system. She teaches English and theater arts to students in grades 7 through 12. As far as her schedule for this year, she explained.

RAMONA AUSTIN: Well, this is my second year going out, and the season has just begun really. I started in September. Last year, I did about 30 engagements. I hope to do more than that this year. It should be very full, and I hope it will take me to the west coast. I've been all over the east coast. I've been to the south, and thus far, I've been over as far as Texas. But I hope to have some type of engagement on the west coast this time. It'll be a lot of fun, and I'll see some things I haven't seen yet.

SPEAKER: Ramona is a freelance writer. She has written some of her own material. But as far as having anything published, she said--

RAMONA AUSTIN: Well, I don't have anything in print yet, not in the near future because I'm too busy doing what I do. I do write. I do have some pieces of my own in the show. There are pieces I've put in because they're good transitional material. They relate and they take you from one point to another in the show because the show is very varied, has a materials of all types, and because I wanted to show the diversity of outlooks that are among Black people. I hope to sometime be able to put out my own work, but that won't be for a while yet until I get the time and until I've explored the possibilities that are open to me right now.

SPEAKER: Ramona is fairly new on the college circuit. I asked her what reactions she has had from her audiences.

RAMONA AUSTIN: I've had really interesting comments, and I've had comments that have made me feel really, really gratified about the show and how it works and how people see it. There are people who have come up to me and said, it made me feel like a person, even though they weren't Black. And I feel good about that because we're all a part of the human race, and the economic, the social, and the political situation can determine each of our own specific experiences.

But through those experiences, there are reactions that are universal to us all because we are all human beings. I mean, if you're oppressed, you feel anger, you feel bitterness, you feel sorrow, you feel grief. That oppression may come in different terms with different political, social, economic colorings. But oppression is oppression is oppression. You see? So a person who is sensitive to the universality of oppression or joy or any human emotion is in some way going to see himself reflected because there are common to anyone.

And I wanted my show to make a tremendous human statement. At the end of it, you could walk away feeling uplifted. I'm tired of walking away from things in which I feel no hope, and I want people not to walk away with a dippity do attitude, or that things have been glossed over. But this is the way things are.

This is some of the truth, and yet at the same time, feel very, very good and positive about being human. And I'd like that to happen to the people in the audience. No matter whether they're white or Black or whatever, I'd like them to go away feeling that way, and it's no good, however. If it isn't, it can't do that. If it isn't really speaking to the Black experience, then it becomes something else altogether, and it loses its validity.

SPEAKER: One of her concerns about their reactions is that they expect to see a big, elderly Black woman doing traditional material.

RAMONA AUSTIN: People do have a stereotype in their mind of the type of people who come around and do the thing that I do. Now, Nikki Giovanni is much more known. So people know what her image is going to be like before she comes out, i mean, what she looks like. But they don't know that about me.

And they really remember in their high school auditoriums and assemblies and things an elderly person coming out and giving a dramatic presentation so that when I walk in, and I'm petite, and if you see me from the back, you really think I'm quite young, that people do. They just don't expect someone like me to walk in. I've had it said to me time and time again, "My goodness, you're really not what we expected."

SPEAKER: There will be two performances today. One at 2:00 PM. The other at 8:00. Here she is again with another presentation.

RAMONA AUSTIN: You know, I really need to kiss you when I want to kiss you where I want to kiss you because this is my house, and I plan to live in it. You know, I really need to hug you when I want to hug you as you like to hug me. Do you think this is a silly poem? I mean, it's my house, and I'll fry pork chops and baked sweet potatoes and call them yams because it's my kitchen and I can stand the heat.

You know, I spent all winter in carpet stores buying patches to make a quilt. Well, I don't know. Maybe this is a silly poem. I mean, I want to keep you warm. And so what if my windows are dirty? It's my house, and if I can't see out, they can't see in either. You know, English is a difficult language to express emotions through. I suppose because people speak English rather than speaking through it.

I mean, this is my house, and I'll bake fudge and press my lips to his chocolate warmth and call it love and smile at old men and call it revolution, because what is real is really real, and I still like men in tight pants because everybody's got something to give, and more important, something to take. And this is my house, and you make me happy. So this is your poem.


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