Introduction for Jonah Mixon-Webster at the University of Pittsburgh, October 10, 2018, and Boom Concepts, October 11, 2018, co-presented by the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics and the Black Unicorn Library and Archives Project
Jonah Mixon-Webster is a poet-educator and conceptual/sound artist from Flint, MI. His debut collection Stereo(TYPE) was selected by Tyrone Williams for the 2017 Sawtooth Poetry Prize from Ahsahta Press. He is completing his Ph.D. in English Studies at Illinois State University, and is the recipient of fellowships from Vermont Studio Center, The Conversation Literary Festival, and Callaloo Writer’s Workshop. His poetry and hybrid works are featured or forthcoming in Muzzle, Callaloo, Spoon River Poetry Review, Assaracus, Voluble, Best New Poets 2017, and Best American Experimental Writing 2018. He is 1/6th of the Detroit-based multidisciplinary Black arts collective CTTNN Club (Can’t Take These Niggas Nowhere).
Last week my Studio in African American Poetry and Poetics class had a lively discussion of Jonah Mixon-Webster’s collection, Stereo(type). At some point I noticed that only the black students were reading the word “nigga” aloud, while some non-black students were instead substituting “blank” wherever the word appears—which is a lot. Eventually I asked why everyone was not reading the text as written. Some were afraid of how their classmates would take it if they spoke the word aloud. “I think the way he is using the word is meant to make non-black people uncomfortable,” one of the white students offered. But I would argue that Stereo(type) is not intending to make non-black readers uncomfortable any more than Stein or Brontë intended to make me so. Stereo(type) is simply not oriented around their familiar compass. That the book forces every reader to engage with its own terms on its own terms is revolutionary. That it pulls the revolution off successfully is genius.
In his Author Statement on the Ahsahta Press website, Mixon-Webster writes,
I’ma keep it a buck, I’ve been a nigga my whole life. My niggas been my niggas my whole life. My daddy and brothers are all niggas. Sometimes, my sisters are niggas…and my homegirls. I meet a new nigga at least ten times a day. All my boyfriends were niggas, and my husband probably will be too. Where I’m at (and where you are), niggas are created every day. This word’s status in my life comes from hearing it at every crossing of my existence, and in contexts with various and almost always conflicting ends. This quotidian phenomenon of nigga synthesis and the inherent dangers on both sides of being a nigga is what gets most niggas caught up. It’s what had me facing two counts of resisting a “peace officer.” It’s usually what gets most niggas killed.
The versatility of the word “nigga,” simultaneously signifying home and risk, underscores Mixon-Webster’s versatility as a poet of phenomenal range and superlative skill. He moves dexterously from the hilarious reimagining of the Sisyphus myth, “Black Existentialism No 13: The Myth of Niggaphus” and searing parody “Twitter Fingers,” in response to the conceptual poet Vanessa Place, to the overheard conversation of “In the Figurative, I Respond—This shit be killing me!,” to intimate lyrics of eros like “On Juking with Another Black Boy” and violence like ‘Psalm 66.” In “Existentialism No 12: Da’ Bad Nigga Blues,” Mixon-Webster uses Steinian repetition to interrogate the book’s favorite term against the backdrop of a blackface minstrel tune, while “Based on Actual Events/ The Real Nigga Attempts to Survive the Apocalypse” is a documentary excavation of the Flint Water Crisis.
By placing the word “nigga” at the center of the text and spinning it in a plentitude of surprising directions, Mixon-Webster has wrested center stage from the great white cannons and comforts—the ancient Greeks, the white conceptual poets, the indifferent government pamphleteers, the cable news networks, even the most conscientious white progressives who would be much more comfortable saying “blank”—and swerved the lights to focus on what has always been central, the black lives and speech at the heart of a popping, careening, stumbling, scatting, falling, diving, and deliberating text.