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If you like James Earl Jones's story, you might also like:
Athol Fugard,
Ernest J. Gaines,
Whoopi Goldberg,
Ron Howard,
Jeremy Irons,
B.B. King,
John R. Lewis,
George Lucas,
Audra McDonald,
Jessye Norman,
Harold Prince,
Sidney Poitier,
Lloyd Richards
and Hilary Swank

James Earl Jones's recommended reading: The Song of Hiawatha

James Earl Jones also appears in the video:
Perseverance and the American Dream

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James Earl Jones
James Earl Jones
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James Earl Jones Interview (page: 2 / 7)

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  James Earl Jones

Were there obstacles you had to overcome as a young boy?

James Earl Jones: I was sort of warmed to hear the other day that Bruce Willis had the exact same problem I did. I suspect a lot of people are stutterers and somehow overcome it.

I'm still a stutterer. But we all find a way to mask it. And sometimes, I guess, our vocabulary might be a little larger than it would have ordinarily been because we have to find a word we won't trip on. A word that begins with the right consonant. I resigned to it as a kid. I guess I was then about -- from ten years old -- when I was approaching serious school work, you had to really report what you knew, and the teacher accepted that I could do all my reporting with a pencil. I didn't have to speak. Oral examinations? I did all mine written. And I became just a non-verbal person. I became a writer, you know. And I was resigned to that. That was okay. I was kind of quiet. You know, I compare myself now to Ali -- Muhammad Ali, you know. Whenever I meet him he doesn't say much. I think he enjoys it back there, not saying very much. Because he was such a mouther before, you know? And brilliant at it. Now I think he enjoys being quiet. Well I enjoyed being quiet. As long as people respected and didn't bother me, and didn't probe me, you know, it was a nice place to be.

Why do you think you stopped talking?

James Earl Jones: It wasn't that I stopped talking, it's that I resolved that talking was too difficult. You see, in the move from Mississippi to Michigan, you would think it would be a jubilant journey for a young boy of --I was then five years old -- going to the promised land, you know. For me though, it was leaving the soil that I had touched with my bare feet, and I didn't know if I'd ever touch soil with my bare feet again, and that was traumatic for me. I was leaving a Huck Finn world. Forget social problems, I was leaving the earth of Mississippi, the clay soil along the banks of the Mississippi River. And that was a trauma for me.

James Earl Jones Interview Photo
James Earl Jones Interview Photo

I didn't realize that until I went back for a family reunion when I was 40 years old. I got back to the old homestead, and I felt such a warmth. Not temperature, not heat warmth, but such a sucking warmth hit me that I was back to that land again. That choo-choo train journey from Mississippi to Michigan was a trauma. There were other things that happened along the way that one might pin it to, family things.

I was an adopted child of my grandparents, and I don't know how I can ever express my gratitude for that because my parents would have been a mess, you know. And there were considerations about that, where should I go and that began to bother me when I'd hear those discussions at night. "Where should James Earl go?" But it was the journey itself that I really feel, the being ripped from the soil is what set me into a state of trauma. So by the time I got to Michigan I was a stutterer. I couldn't talk. So my first year of school was my first mute year and then those mute years continued until I got to high school.

How did that change?

James Earl Jones: Donald Crouch in high school said, "Do you like these words?" And, I was then writing words of my own. He said, "Do you like these words? Do you like the way they sound in your head?" He said, "Well, they sound ten times better when you give 'em out in the air. It's too bad you can't say these words." He began to challenge me, to nudge me toward speaking again, and by using my own poetry and then other poets because he himself was a compatriot of Robert Frost, he himself was a poet. He himself said he learned a poem a day, in case he went blind, he'd have a whole book of poems in his head. And he nudged me toward that, toward acknowledging and appreciating the beauty of words.

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What was the poem he finally got you to read aloud?

James Earl Jones: Yes,

It was the poem, "Ode to Grapefruit." Only because I had written it in the meter -- I'd used the meter of the "Hiawatha," and Donald Crouch used that as a reason to challenge me. He said, "I don't think you..." he says, "This is a good poem. It's so good; I don't think you wrote it. To prove you wrote it, get up in front of the class and say it out loud." And that was the time. I don't know whether he concocted that challenge or not, but he really meant it. And, I got up and I said it and didn't stutter. Nice surprise.

What came over you at that moment?

James Earl Jones: I didn't know if I was happy or not. I was in shock and awe. I won't put a pleasure label to it. I was in trouble.

Do you still have the poem?

James Earl Jones: When I left the Army -- when I left my training in Fort Benning, I bought a little used car that broke down in Akron, Ohio. In that little used car was all my poems, you know. So I put it in storage, and then when I went back to collect it later on after the Army, it was missing. And I'm grateful that the poem about grapefruit was missing, cause -- although it had all the poetic values and had all the meter and all that, it was basically -- just as Longfellow imitated the Finnish author of Kalevalaa, I imitated Longfellow's 'Hiawatha," and it had all that. But it was really about the beauty -- I don't know if anybody else can appreciate it. I wouldn't expect them to. In the wintertime, in the snow country, citrus fruit was so rare, and if you got one, it was better than ambrosia. It was better than a peach, it was better than anything you can imagine from exotic worlds, you know. And, I just poured my heart out to the wonders of grapefruit.

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