by Nona Blyth Cloud
For the second week of Black History Month, we have poets from different backgrounds, generations, and even one from a different continent. What they share are vivid imaginations that translate into memorable word pictures.
Camille T. Dungy (1972 – ) is an American poet of African American heritage, and a creative writing professor. She was born in Denver but moved often as her father, an academic physician, taught at many different medical schools across the country. She earned a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.
Dungy has written these interconnecting poems as if they were letters from Joseph Freeman, who was a free man but now a slave in Virginia, to his wife Melinda, living with their son in Philadelphia. Much is left unexplained, but there were a number of cases in our dark past of free black people stolen from Northern states and sold into slavery, as Solomon Northup so vividly wrote in Twelve Years a Slave.
From the Unwritten Letters of Joseph Freeman
Melinda, I’ve been preparing to write.
That peculiar girl named Molly,
who has a bit of liberty in the house,
has said she’ll find some paper.
I have practiced mixing charred wood with water
and have managed to shave a twig
so one end nearly resembles a nib,
but tonight Lila got caught up
under the good Doctor’s whip
for such a little offense. I am frightened.
Doctor Jackson brought in a new troop of slaves today.
A boy of thirteen among them had the welted cheek
that speaks of a driver’s dissatisfaction.
Lila put a poultice on to ease the swelling,
but Jackson wants the boy to understand his place
and thinks a scar will help. Lila’s back
and neck and arms have thirty new wounds
to replace the one she thought to heal.
Melinda, how is Jacob? Ever yours,
Do you ever start at night believing
I might be dead? I leave my body
sometimes, Melinda. Is that all dying is?
Remember how I’d scold you
when the stew was thin, believing
I needed a thick stock to forge muscle
for all the work I had ahead?
Your stew would make me big again, Melinda.
Sometimes we have to trap, skin and roast
possum, rabbit, snake and squirrel.
Except for that, I have swallowed naught
but salt pork and coarse meal in all my days
away from you. But I work just fine.
Ever your beloved husband,
What a herd of slaves Jackson brought in last month.
No sooner had their strength returned
after the long march to the farm from Lynchburg
but they began to plot another run.
We didn’t know they’d planned to leave
until they were already gone a day.
All manner of neighborhood men
came around to tip Jackson’s whiskey
and help him on the hunt, though
all they brought back for their trouble
were two bodies. One dead,
one fighting off living. That boy
I told you about, Ben with the slashed cheek?
At the stony fork of the river
Doc Jackson found his body, cut up,
twisted as if it had fought long
under water, a dead hand pointing
in the direction his netted sister and the “damned
lost lot of niggers” had run. I guess
he was too obstinate even for the water
to hold down easily. Jackson used Ben
like a scarecrow, his shirt hooked on a pole,
his body meant to warn us from the road.
Lila’s still not certain that the girl will live.
Until tomorrow, I am ever your Joe.
William is the name Smythe matched
to my description when he shipped me
from his Wilmington slave pen
to the Richmond consigner Jackson
bought me from. So I am William,
though it took more than one whipping
for me to remember it. There is a woman
keeps the kitchen here prefers we call her Auntie.
She’s been called so many names
she “most forgets” which one means her.
I trust Jacob is getting on in school
just fine. I was, at his age, learning
to carry myself with the pride of a Freeman.
It’s been many years since I’ve been able
to answer to any person calling me
that name. And Jacob? Can he remember
his father? Please hug him for me,
Melinda. I am ever your husband,
How many live on our alley in Philadelphia?
There, this room might accommodate
a bed and two chairs, but here we are three men,
two women, some potions, and a girl. We sleep
in turns. Marlo often walks the woods at night,
his eye out on the traps for all of us. ‘Dolphus steals sleep
in the smithing shop and steals everything else
before dawn. Just last week, we bore the tread
of a muzzled goat and two hens he brought in
from a neighbor’s farm. Our field sweat adds stench
to the store of bones, feathers, brews, and herbs
Lila claims can cure the women on this place.
Sadie, who Lila never tried to stop herself from bearing,
sleeps with her body wedged behind the door.
Molly swings it in her side each night when she turns up
to sleep after Miss Amy’s laudanum takes and again
when she races the conch call to the house in the morning.
Even Lena, who had a well-built cabin of her own
when she lived on the place, pushed four babies off her tit
to make room for the Doctor and for Miss Amy’s boy.
I wonder, Melinda, are your wages enough,
since I went away, to satisfy the rent? Yours in tribulation,
The Doctor’s had his eye on Molly
since he caught her listening
while the tutor drilled his son on Greek.
She says the boy translates slowly.
On a war now, his spoiled tongue
has spent two days flogging
some warrior’s impenetrable shield.
Molly showed me yesterday
what a heart looks like. Traced it
in the dirt that is my bed, my stool,
my desk, my cabin floor. I miss you, Melinda.
I miss feeling the little skip your heart took sometimes,
though I know the pinch that came along with the stutter
pained you. Molly is a smart girl,
though brutal in her zeal. She’s quicker
than a butcher to find cause to wield a knife.
I am certain the Doctor will lapse in his vigilance
soon enough. Then I will chance to capture
on the page one of these letters. May God be good
and grant so large a prayer. Yours,
We are like to lose another hand
unless ‘Dolphus can recover
from the flogging he took
over a missing pair of cufflinks.
The girl who was brought home
with Ben’s body was quickly well enough
to work, and she had less skin on her bones
than Doctor Jackson left on ‘Dolphus.
Perhaps there is some little hope
for Lila’s husband. Molly is afraid
to sneak me any of the Doctor’s paper.
Molly, who can be as bad as ‘Dolphus
about purloining pretty, useful things.
I doubted she was earnest in her fear,
but now I see what she, born here,
must have always known. A man
whose livelihood depends on stealing
the toil of other people’s bodies
must keep a keen eye on his own
most dear and precious things.
“From the Unwritten Letters of Joseph Freeman” from Suck on the Marrow – © 2010 by Camille Dungy – Red Hen Press
Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872-1906) was born in Dayton OH, the son of freed slaves, and one of the first African American poets to gain national recognition. When he moved to Chicago in 1893, he became friends with Frederick Douglass, who helped him find a job as a clerk, and arranged a public reading for Dunbar to present his poems. Within two years, his poems were appearing in national magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times. After a reading tour of England in 1897, he received a clerkship at the Library of Congress, but by 1898, he was suffering from tuberculosis, and resigned his position to concentrate on writing and giving readings. He died in his mother’s home in Dayton, at the age of 33.
The Haunted Oak
Pray why are you so bare, so bare,
Oh, bough of the old oak-tree;
And why, when I go through the shade you throw,
Runs a shudder over me?
My leaves were green as the best, I trow,
And sap ran free in my veins,
But I say in the moonlight dim and weird
A guiltless victim’s pains.
I bent me down to hear his sigh;
I shook with his gurgling moan,
And I trembled sore when they rode away,
And left him here alone.
They’d charged him with the old, old crime,
And set him fast in jail:
Oh, why does the dog howl all night long,
And why does the night wind wail?
He prayed his prayer and he swore his oath,
And he raised his hand to the sky;
But the beat of hoofs smote on his ear,
And the steady tread drew nigh.
Who is it rides by night, by night,
Over the moonlit road?
And what is the spur that keeps the pace,
What is the galling goad?
And now they beat at the prison door,
“Ho, keeper, do not stay!
We are friends of him whom you hold within,
And we fain would take him away
“From those who ride fast on our heels
With mind to do him wrong;
They have no care for his innocence,
And the rope they bear is long.”
They have fooled the jailer with lying words,
They have fooled the man with lies;
The bolts unbar, the locks are drawn,
And the great door open flies.
Now they have taken him from the jail,
And hard and fast they ride,
And the leader laughs low down in his throat,
As they halt my trunk beside.
Oh, the judge, he wore a mask of black,
And the doctor one of white,
And the minister, with his oldest son,
Was curiously bedight.
Oh, foolish man, why weep you now?
‘Tis but a little space,
And the time will come when these shall dread
The mem’ry of your face.
I feel the rope against my bark,
And the weight of him in my grain,
I feel in the throe of his final woe
The touch of my own last pain.
And never more shall leaves come forth
On the bough that bears the ban;
I am burned with dread, I am dried and dead,
From the curse of a guiltless man.
And ever the judge rides by, rides by,
And goes to hunt the deer,
And ever another rides his soul
In the guise of a mortal fear.
And ever the man he rides me hard,
And never a night stays he;
For I feel his curse as a haunted bough,
On the trunk of a haunted tree.
The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar (Dodd Mead & Company, 1913)
Elizabeth Alexander (1962 — ) was born in Harlem, but as a child in a politically active family, she grew up in Washington, DC. Her mother, Adele Logan Alexander, is also a writer, and teaches African-American women’s history at George Washington University. Her father, Clifford Alexander Jr., is a former U. S. Secretary of the Army and and former Equal Employment Opportunity Commission chair. Her brother Mark was a senior adviser to the Obama presidential campaign and a member of his transition team.
Alexander as a toddler went with her family to the 1963 March on Washington to hear Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. “Politics was in the drinking water at my house,” she said, describing her childhood.
She got her B.A from Yale. Then her mother said to her, “That poet you love, Derek Walcott, is teaching at Boston University. Why don’t you apply?” Alexander originally entered studying fiction writing, but Walcott looked at her diary and saw the poetry potential. Alexander said, “He gave me a huge gift. He took a cluster of words and he lineated it. And I saw it.”
My first week in Cambridge a car full of white boys
tried to run me off the road, and spit through the window,
open to ask directions. I was always asking directions
and always driving: to an Armenian market
in Watertown to buy figs and string cheese, apricots,
dark spices and olives from barrels, tubes of paste
with unreadable Arabic labels. I ate
stuffed grape leaves and watched my lips swell in the mirror.
The floors of my apartment would never come clean.
Whenever I saw other colored people
in bookshops, or museums, or cafeterias, I’d gasp,
smile shyly, but they’d disappear before I spoke.
What would I have said to them? Come with me? Take
me home? Are you my mother? No. I sat alone
in countless Chinese restaurants eating almond
cookies, sipping tea with spoons and spoons of sugar.
Popcorn and coffee was dinner. When I fainted
from migraine in the grocery store, a Portuguese
man above me mouthed: “No breakfast.” He gave me
orange juice and chocolate bars. The color red
sprang into relief singing Wagner’s Walküre.
Entire tribes gyrated and drummed in my head.
I learned the samba from a Brazilian man
so tiny, so festooned with glitter I was certain
that he slept inside a filigreed, Fabergé egg.
No one at the door: no salesmen, Mormons, meter
readers, exterminators, no Harriet Tubman,
no one. Red notes sounding in a grey trolley town.
“Race” from Antebellum Dream Book, © 2001 by Elizabeth Alexander, Graywolf Press
Philippa Yaa de Villiers was born in 1966, to a white Australian mother and a Ghanian father. She was given up for adoption and raised by a white family in South Africa.
“I became Phillippa Yaa when I found my biological father, who told me that if he had been there when I was born, the first name I’d have been given would be a day name like all Ghanaian babies, and all Thursday girls are Yaa, Yawo, or Yaya. So by changing my name I intended to inscribe a feeling of belonging and also one of pride on my African side. After growing up black in white South Africa, internalising so many negative ‘truths’ of what black people are like, I needed to reclaim my humanity and myself from the toxic dance of objectification.”
“Because I wasn’t told that I was adopted until I was twenty, I lacked a vocabulary to describe who I am and where I come from, so performing and writing became ways to make myself up.”
The rain children
They permeate, the poor, their eyes and knees
as thin as rain, these children staring,
as democracy parades through the streets.
Glue substitutes for blankets and teats,
the streetmother grey concrete skirt uncaring:
they permeate, the poor, their eyes and knees
and hands reproach, demand, confront, entreat:
tightly walleted, my conscience, and unsparing
as democracy parades through the streets.
Rain fills my well-fed stomach. All my feats
are washed away with soul’s comparing:
they permeate, the poor, their eyes and knees
as cold as sorrow. Presidents decree
but rain soaks paper promises, tearing,
as democracy parades through the streets.
Like driving drops or drizzle, paring
warmth from skin, dissolving, wearing:
they permeate, the poor, their eyes and knees,
as democracy parades through the streets
“The rain children” from Taller than Buildings,© 2006 by Phillippa Yaa de Villiers – self-published
Carolyn M. Rodgers (1940 – 2010) is no longer as well-known as she was at her controversial zenith, from the late 1960s to the end of the 1970s. Rodgers grew up on Chicago’s South Side. She attended Roosevelt University and the University of Chicago, where she got her MA in English. Early in her career she was associated with the Black Arts Movement, attending writing workshops led by Gwendolyn Brooks and through the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC). Her collections of poetry include Paper Soul (1968); Songs of a Blackbird (1969), which won the Poet Laureate Award of the Society of Midland Authors; how I got ovah: New and Selected Poems (1975); The Heart as Ever Green: Poems (1978); and Morning Glory: Poems (1989). She died of cancer at the age of 69.
At a time when many male African-American writers were being praised for their use of ‘Black English,’ Carolyn Rodgers was being told to “tone down” the very language that had first brought her attention. So she wrote this poem in response to her critics. WARNING: Cuss words ahead!
The Last M.F.
that i should not use the word
in my poetry or in any speech i give.
that i must and can only say it to myself
as the new Black Womanhood suggests
a softer self
a more reserved speaking self. they say,
that respect is hard won by a woman
who throws a word like muthafucka around
and so they say because we love you
throw that word away, Black Woman …
that i only call muthafuckas, muthafuckas
so no one should be insulted.
and so i say
this is the last poem i will write calling
all manner of wites, card-carrying muthafuckas
and all manner of Blacks (negroes too) sweet
muthafuckas, crazy muthafuckas, lowdown muthafuckas
cool muthafuckas, mad and revolutionary muthafuckas,
But anyhow you all know just like I do (whether I say
it or not), there’s plenty of MEAN muthafuckas out
here trying to do the struggle in.
“The Last M.F.” from How I Got Ovah: New and Selected Poems © 1975 by Carolyn M. Rodgers – Doubleday
Black History is a long story, and like all histories, it’s full of struggle and survival, triumph and despair, and every day adds a new page. Historians give you facts and concepts and time frames. What poetry gives you is how the story tastes, and smells and feels. Rita Dove said, “Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.”
- Angel Oak tree
- Boston trolley
- Boy in damaged house in Camaroon – WHO/Hidden Cities/by Anna Kari
- Benin Iyoba (Queen Mother) 18th Century
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud