An Interview With Taz
What made your write a poem like There Was A Time?
Because, as a black man, I constantly see the shift in power: Maynard Jackson (former mayor of Atlanta) and Carl Stokes (former mayor of Cleveland) passing away, are two examples. The achievement of Colin Powell to the office of Secretary of State, and, of course, the contributions of Martin Luther King, Jr., before his assassination, are of obvious importance. I love history and I read a lot of African-American history. I marvel at the contributions people like Ida B. Wells and Madame Walker have made to the black community. You see, there was a time when there were no black mayors like Jackson and Stokes, no black newspaper editors and authors like Ida Wells, and no nationally known black news commentators like Ed Bradley. There Was A Time, and the other heritage poems I write, give me the opportunity to explain to my children and my students about being strong enough to step up to the plate. You see, it’s about being able to be a mayor of a city or pastor a congregation as a black man or woman or about taking charge of a difficult situation and leading people. With us it has always been a first something: first one who could read; first one who could write. It is about taking that monumental step. There was a time when our people were not permitted to learn; that was part of our heritage, part of slavery. My grandmother could not read or write well, but she survived on sheer discernment and common sense. You couldn’t cheat her. She knew when you weren’t being honest. She once said that if it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t be where I am today, and she’s right. It’s because of her, an illiterate African-American granddaughter of Alabama slaves, transplanted to Detroit, who braved illness, war and the deaths of three of her children, that I was able to achieve my martial arts and bodyguard skills. It is because of her that I am able to write, There Was A Time and have my own publishing company.
As a boy growing up in Detroit, how did you satisfy your “need to know” and where did you develop your love of history and current events?
Back in the day, the barber shop was a favorite meeting place for black men. Mothers and grandmothers would drop off their children or grandchildren on Saturday afternoons and boys would get a haircut before church on Sunday. The barber shop was a place where black men got together and discussed current events. The barber shop scene in Coming to America and the movie The Barber Shop are perfect examples of what I’m talking about. At the barber shop, we listened about what happened: about progress; about this person and that person; about the last person to get hung; about people who passed away; all about the good, bad and indifferent…even about Mrs. Johnson’s children…everybody knew your business in the community. I remember seeing the old issues of Jet Magazine and occasionally a picture of a lynching in the South. I’d ask about it and the barber would say, “Boy, that’s just something we got to live with.”
Your first book, There Was A Time: A Journey into Black and White with Taz gets it’s title from the African-American heritage poem, There Was A Time. In the poem, you detail the plight of an old man being ridiculed by young people because of his age. Are you trying to give the youth of America a message?
Younger kids move fast. They say, “He ain’t in step.” Or “He done got old”. They watch an old man’s slower movements and recognize how slowly he thinks. People have a tendency to laugh at older people. When I was younger, I watched older people and I could see them thinking in another zone. Now I know that it is close becoming the time when I am that person. Young people must realize that there will come a day when they are the ones that will be sitting in that chair: older, slower, but with a rich heritage and much to offer. Yes, I suppose I am trying to give the message that having respect for and listening to older people is an art every young person should learn. They need to recognize the positive contribution of elderly people. They need to realize that if it weren’t for them, we would not have achieved the progress we have achieved today. You see, our grandparents and great-grandparents were humble people. They were born in slavery. They walked another walk. The farther we get away from that old regime, everybody sees life differently. Back then, they were surviving in spite of scraping and bowing to the ground. We have a tendency to not want to think about who we are and how our roots started. It would be easy to erase the whole era of slavery, but if we didn’t have it, we would not know where we came from—who we are. That is the foundation. A house can be burned to the ground but the foundation will stand. Likewise, a house can be blown down in a storm, but the foundation will remain.
Your poem, Strong Old Oak, is another heritage poem that is a favorite of many readers. Doesn’t it speak to this theme? Yes. Oak is the base. Oak is the foundation so to speak. We know where we came from. All we have to do is follow the “roots” back. My family came out of Georgia, Carolina, and Virginia. Studying family history has helped me understand who I am. When I see their names, their photographs, their occupations and their children, I can also visualize their strength and their journey. When I read the old newspapers and study the slave censuses, read the old wills and read the names on the death certificates, I find new pieces of the puzzle that lead me further back. With each discovery, I understand more and more about the skills, intelligence, fortitude and strength of my people. Slaves were very smart. Even their names supply pieces of the puzzle, like my great aunt Caroline. We know her family came from Carolina. And my dad’s name “George”, named for his father and my great-grandfather’s slave owner, George Kornegay, who came to Alabama from North Carolina.