My Johns Hopkins colleague Hollis Robbins (director of the JHU Center for Africana Studies and chair of the humanities department at the Peabody Institute) recently wrote an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education’s The Chronicle Review that dovetailed with some of the thinking I was doing in my recent blog posts on why and how one might teach the more “difficult” texts of beloved authors instead of (or in addition to) their “go-to” anthologized pieces (Robert Hayden’s “The Ballad of Nat Turner” and “Night, Death, Mississippi,” as opposed to Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays”). Robbins’s article, “The Literature of Lynching,” touches on the politics of anthologizing and the politics of teaching some of our most harrowing American poems as both literature and dispatches from our shared American and human heritage.
Robbins’s article begins with a photograph of a 1930 lynching in Indiana; this same photograph, “Public Lynching,” is one of the images included in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (Graywolf, 2014), though in Citizen, photographer and filmmaker John Lucas (Rankine’s husband and ongoing multimedia collaborator) has altered the image to obscure the hanging human bodies in the darkness of the night background, while leaving the white bodies (smiling, pointing, gawking, indifferent) lit in the camera’s flash. That photograph was taken August 30th, 1930. Eighty-five years ago this Sunday.
Sixty years ago today, Emmett Till was murdered. On the Memorious Twitter feed, editor Rebecca Morgan Frank links us to Cornelius Eady’s “Emmet Till’s Glass-Top Casket,” Gwendolyn Brooks’s “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till,” and poems by other elegizers, including Susan BA Somers-Willet, Elizabeth Alexander, and Marilyn Nelson.
Robbins explores “Between the World and Me” (now the title of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s most recent book as well) by Richard Wright, Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “The Haunted Oak,” Claude McKay’s “The Lynching,” Langston Hughes’s “Christ in Alabama” and “Song for a Dark Girl,” and Lucille Clifton’s “jasper texas 1998.” Robbins notes that Clifton’s poem was first published in the Spring 1999 issue of Ploughshares, “written for 49-year-old James Byrd Jr., who was dismembered as he was pulled behind a pickup truck.”
This coming semester, I’ll be teaching Terrance Hayes’s “A Postcard from Okemah,” included in the anthology Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century (Sarabande, 2006), edited by Michael Dumanis and Cate Marvin. Hayes’s “A Postcard from Okemah” first appeared in Ploughshares as well, three years after Clifton’s in the Spring 2002 issue. While this poem does not appear in Robbins’s article, its questions apply. Hayes begins his 56-line poem, which is a meditation on one of the two known photographs of the 1911 lynching of Laura and L.D. Nelson, with the following stanza:
Turned from the camera’s eye, hovering,
between river & bridge, the hung woman
looks downstream, & snagged in the air
beside her, the body of her young son.
It is a Monday morning years too late.
All the rocking chairs & shopping carts,
all the mailboxes & choir pews are empty.
I cannot hear the psalms of salvation
or forgiveness, the gospel of Mercy.
I cannot ask who is left more disfigured:
the ones who are beaten or the ones who beat;
the ones who are hung or the ones who hang.
I am also teaching from Michael Theune’s Structure & Surprise this coming semester, so I have been thinking a lot about the “moves” poems make. For a moment, in Hayes’s movement from photograph to self-as-observer and from past to present to universal, my mind wanders to this book’s chapter on “emblem structure” (a meditation on object “turning” to thought or revelation) and its chapter on “retrospective-prospective structure” (a meditation on the past “turning” to the present/future). For a moment, I think of a unit I plan to teach on observation and specificity. Hayes:
If you look closely you can see a pattern
of tiny flowers printed on her dress;
you can see an onlooker’s hand opened
as if he’s just released a dark bouquet.
Robbins writes, “. . . [The] power of Coates’s Between the World and Me, like the poem for which it is named, resides in its ruthless recognition of violence to the black body in America. But how does one bring that recognition into a literature class as a matter of literature?” As a teacher of poetry writing, I have to ask myself similar questions. Perhaps most importantly, I have to ask myself what “a matter of literature” (and a matter of poetry or writing) even means. When teachers do deem history, or justice, “not a matter” of poetry or writing or literature, what (and who) do we lose? What are we avoiding?
In teaching “A Postcard from Okemah,” I want to do justice to the care Hayes has taken in writing it. It is (as so many of his poems are), breathtakingly crafted and breathtakingly moving, complicated in its ideas and clear in its depictions. I want to inspire my students to write “like that.” But Robbins is right–to write “like that,” is not just a matter of craft, but a matter of love, respect, sorrow, rage, justice. I want justice for Laura and L.D. Nelson, and James Byrd Jr…. and Freddie Gray… and Tamir Rice… and–
Turning back to Citizen, I think for a moment that I was mistaken, that Lucas did not alter the image to obscure the lynching itself, as now I think I see faces suspended in the sky. Looking closer, I see that those are my own fingerprints, matte marks on the image’s dark sheen, altering the alteration. Where am I going with this? Where are we going?