“In Berlin, you can’t go anywhere without seeing stones and markers dedicated to the Jewish and Roma residents who were forced from their homes and taken to the concentration camps,” Bryan Stevenson, a civil rights lawyer, says in “A Lynching’s Long Shadow” by Vanessa Gregory. “And that iconography creates a consciousness of what happened that I think is necessary for that society to recover. In the American South, we’ve done the opposite. We’ve actually created symbols designed to make us feel great about our history, about the 19th century, about the good old days of the early 20th century.”
That quote from Stevenson, also a MacArthur winner and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, really struck me. We should be tripping over memorials for enslaved people here in the south, and for descendants of those enslaved people, who were subject to decades of terrorism while huge portions of white America stood by. Those lynchings were, instead, cheered on by white audiences, who brought their children to the festivities and collected souvenirs (read some basics about lynchings in Virginia here, but know in advance this Encyclopedia Virginia article contains upsetting pictures). It’s not that I think memorials would fix racism. But it’s pernicious how centuries of racist oppression are not just under erasure, where I live. They’re actually celebrated as “heritage” in a way I will never get over.
So what do I do, aside from the occasional march, phone call, editorial, donation? I’ve been deliberating these questions mostly through my poetry and in my classrooms. During our four-week May term this year, I’m teaching African American poetry with an emphasis on history, and the class will culminate in a digital memorial project framed in some way by excerpts of poems. It’s a talented group of students, mostly non-majors, and I’ve been working hard to introduce them to resources like our university’s wonderful Special Collections, but what they focus on will ultimately be up to them. This is a public project, so I’ll post a link in about two weeks, when it’s done.
At the moment, we’re waiting to scrutinize the report of the Committee on Institutional History, which was released to the president last week but not, yet, to the community. We’re also reading Kevin Young’s amazing long poem Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels, from 2011. I think my students are struggling with it, much more so than with the shorter poems we’ve read, and I understand why–Ardency is not only long (250 pages), but Young steadfastly refuses to simplify this vast, complicated, powerful story. Instead, the book riffs on the languages and structures of religion, education, and music, with a section each focused on Covey, the free Mendi translator; Cinque, a captive who came to lead the rebellion; and a chorus of survivors on trial, often represented through letters. For a sample from Cinque’s extended “Libretto,” listen to “Choir (Morning).” Or read 1/250th of the book below. (I prefer to link to poems if I don’t have permission to post them, but I can’t find anything to link to. Just read this and buy the book, please. I believe Ardency will be judged one of the top poetic achievements of the century.)
The rage I have
not felt till now is not
what is, here,
called red–raw, rare
meat it is not.
Instead, steady green.
Is no flowering,
not a sudden thing
but the tallest tree.
Not the swift climb
to the top–or, timber—
But the termite’s steady rot.
-Kevin Young, from Ardency
Can a poem be a monument? I think so. A book doesn’t have the simplicity of a pillar or the accessibility of a garden, but there’s a public role, too, for the productive difficulties of intensely patterned language. We need to read poetry, alone and together, because it helps us remember (and imagine) what’s lost and imagine (and remember) a way forward.
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