I first heard Jayne Cortez twenty years ago at Shaman Drum bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, back when I thought surrealism was Dali and Magritte, melted clocks and floating hats.
Then I heard the truth. She blew the walls down with magnetic images of convulsive beauty, indictments of misery, proclamations of emancipation, and declarations of war. She waged poetic war on imperialism, racism, sexism, consumerism, environmental destruction, and war itself, while hipping the unhip to our great artists— from Langston to Babs, Guillien to Josephine, Damas to Dumas.
I was too afraid, too exhausted, too moved to introduce myself then, but through chance encounters with Franklin and Penelope Rosemont— founders of the Chicago Surrealist Group—as well as mutual friends and future colleagues (namely Manthia Diawara and Genna Rae McNeil) I found my way to Jayne Cortez, and to Ted Joans, and discovered the path to freedom.
Jayne’s incredible warmth, generosity, humility, and brutal honesty could be disarming; could make one forget that she is one of the most important American surrealists of the century. She did not talk much about Surrealism because, like Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus, she resisted labels— though she did describe her poetry as “unruly and free.”
It’s not that she found Surrealism; surrealism found her, as it were. Ted Joans recognized it in her when the met in 1968; it was there in her vibrant poetic imagery drawn from the deep well of a blues imagination—except that her blues did not begin in the Delta or with W. C. Handy but in Africa, in the kora, in the tonal languages, in the drum, transmuted in the Middle Passage. Surrealism embraced her as one of its originals—like Breton and the Césaires, Leiris and Lero. But like Amiri Baraka, she wasn’t simply interested in the disordering of the bourgeois world—she worked for its destruction.
She never went for “exoticism and primitivism,” nor did she write protest poetry. She didn’t need to. She lived rebellion, struggling actively to reorder social reality—from supporting sncc’s voter registration drive in Mississippi and founding the Watts Writers Workshop to launching Yari Yari. Her poetry was never “protest” but a complete revolt, a clarion call for a new way of life. She not only lifted the proverbial rug covering the mess created by our global systems of domination, but she opened our imaginations to new, transformative, magical possibilities: “A promenading surface of erotic strokes/Rebellions carried on the felt tip of an evening sunset.”
The last time I saw Jayne was on April 8th of last year, when she performed as part of Randy Weston’s “African Nubian Suite.” In her remarkable paean to Ardipithecus and African history, she vowed to “Be unruly as unruly can be/ Because a woman is deep water, deep earth, deep time…” She reminded us of the powers arrayed against us as well as the powers we possess: “If you know your spirit,” she intoned, “like the moon knows its belly/ you can sway between two sandstorms/ and dance on the cliff top/ like all the pelvises represented by the great Ardi-pithecus in a rocky pluck-a-luck.”
It was a clarion call to all of us to act, to forge our misery into the marvelous.
So Ms. Cortez, to borrow your own words,
“I will push forward your precious gift of courage
Thanks to the Southwestern knife with terracotta teeth
Magnifi cent ancestor/ warrior friend/ most beautiful sister
I kiss the mud of this moment.”