Nikki Giovanni, the brilliant black poet, does not like the idea of artistic blacklists. She most decidedly does not like the fact that she finds herself on one.
Her sin, she says, is that she does not hew to the orthodoxy that insists that black artists and athletes must not perform in South Africa. She hasn't performed there, she insists, but neither will she sign a statement in support of the artistic boycott.
As a result, she and other non-signers have been "lied on, physically threatened" and subjected to "bomb scares and economic intimidation."
Giovanni believes that her troubles started with a 1974 visit to Africa that included stops in Swaziland, Lesotho and Botswana -- stops that necessitated a "courtesy stop" in Johannesburg.
"There were two ways you could make a 'courtesy stop': with a visa or through house arrest when you arrived at Jan Smuts Airport," she recalls in a letter she has been circulating from her home in Cincinnati. "As a free citizen of a free country, I had no desire to be placed under house arrest. I applied for and was granted a four-day visa which allowed me to travel through Johannesburg.
"From that visit, or perhaps even that visa application, I am now being accused, if accused is the word, of having 'performed' in South Africa. Considering that my books are banned in that country, on the face of it absurdity has taken hold of the minds of some people."
It would be easy enough to clear up a merely factual error. But Giovanni's error, in the view of the boycott supporters, is also political and tactical.
"I do not support the boycott of South Africa," she said. "I refuse to sign any statement, to join any group. As both a black American and an artist, I feel that a presence is more significant than an absence. A nation 80 percent black cannot be treated as if it were a soft drink company or the grocery store on the corner. . . . I deeply resent the lies being spread about me simply because I will not cave in to a philosophy that I do not believe in."
Randall Robinson, executive director of TransAfrica, an organizer of the demonstrations at the South African Embassy here and one of the most thoughtful black spokesmen anywhere, understands Giovanni's point, but he believes she is wrong.
"We are not talking about inconsequential freedoms of speech and association, but about people who, wittingly or unwittingly, are lending the public-relations value of their celebrity to a vicious and heinous system," said Robinson, who is also a leader of Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid, which has promoted the boycott.
It isn't enough that a performer refuse to support apartheid by insisting on racially integrated audiences, or by performing for all-black groups, he said. "You have to understand what South Africa's strategy is. You have to ask why Sun City [capital of the internationally unrecognized "homeland" of Bophuthatswana] would offer Stevie Wonder a reported $2.5 million for a one-week engagement," he said, or why tennis stars and world-famous golfers would be paid up to a half-million for playing there -- far more than they could get anywhere on the professional circuit.
"The whole purpose is to legitimize the South African system -- including the discredited 'homelands,' apartheid, the whole thing. When [Los Angeles Mayor] Tom Bradley appeared at the opening of a South African consulate in Beverly Hills, the picture of him shaking the consul's hand was included in every South African publication sent around the world. It doesn't matter what these Americans say, or how they feel; the pictures are worth a fortune in public-relations value."
All of which cuts no ice with Giovanni, who sees the boycott as intimidation. "I fail to see how the freedom of black South Africans has become so precious that the freedoms of black Americans can be so easily trampled," she said.
"I would certainly not try to prevent a performer from performing in South Africa, beyond using whatever persuasive power I might have," Robinson said. "But these performers must realize the uses to which their appearances are put, and they must recognize that if they do go, they will find themselves the object of picket lines and well-organized boycotts."