Last year as the Black Lives Matter protests strengthened, I read the following poem by Georgia poet and writer, Joiya Morrison-Efemini. I’m grateful she granted permission to re-post here.
Social media abounds with the posts
by my white
they are listening
The first Black people
to this country in
Four hundred and one years
hundreds of thousands
of Black bodies
strung up on trees
And with a straight face, you ask me
to teach you.
Teach you what, exactly?
I am a Black woman.
how can I speak for all
Just as nuanced as you are,
You do not see
Millions of white images
on television commercials
My perception of white people
comes from 43 years
of interaction and relationship
with innumerable white people.
So I do not have a perception of
I can say, “Some white people…”
of the time
the words that follow
could apply to any person
of any race.
When God made me,
He said I was good
just like you,
and then He obliterated
even the most
will not give you the education
you say you crave
I have seen your bookshelves
stocked with cookbooks,
books on Christianity,
about the Jewish holocaust
and the Great Depression,
about Women’s Suffrage
all of your interests
standing in line,
the African experience
here in America
does not deserve your
You prefer it
over a lunch you pay for,
Joiya’s honesty and challenge hit me every time I read her poem. I look at my bookcases and she’s right. Among the novels, and short story and poetry collections, there are books about the Holocaust and Viet Nam, immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, books about various faith traditions, gardening, and homeschooling. Tucked in-between are novels and poetry collections by Black writers. Some of them are friends of mine and some I’ve had the great pleasure of learning from.
It’s a nice assortment of books. In Rita Dove’s collection I’m caught up in the love story of Thomas and Beulah. In Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler I feel the terror and helplessness of New Orleans’ Black community as they watch and wait for Hurricane Katrina and they have no place to go. I hear the sass and strength of three generations of Black women in Crystal Wilkinson’s Birds of Opulence. Yet, even taken collectively these books don’t provide the full context of the African experience in America.
While I find the fullness of Joiya’s poem powerful, the challenge comes to me in two places. The first, Teach you what, exactly? I don’t know. As I write this post at 4:00 a.m., I’m puzzling out what I’m looking for. I’m aware of the nuances Joiya mentions because of the poetry shared by my Black friends and the conversations we have. We have more in common than not. So what’s missing?
After George Floyd’s murder, hubby and I watched several specials on race. What kept coming across was this sense of a collective history that Africans in America have that seemed almost oral in nature, something innate. I want a better understanding of that history, not just the watered-down, abridged version from history classes. I think understanding history deepens current conversations and connections.
And secondly, Joiya’s final line, ‘. . .spoon-fed and unbound’. She puts the onus of learning where it belongs, on me. The lack of depth in my education isn’t from lack of interest, or from thinking I know enough. It’s from inattention to what’s missing and procrastinating when my curiosity is piqued.
Two years ago I came across the Zora Canon, a list of 100 literary works by Black women, beginning with the first novel ever written by a Black woman, Our Ng, published in 1850, to works published in 2019. The Canon is named after the novelist Zora Neale Hurston. I’d tucked the list away thinking that after I finished writing the church book, I’d start reading through the Canon.
After Joiya’s poem, I decided it was time to begin educating myself. I have no noble goal of completing the Canon this month, or even this year. But this month I’ll work on these five books in the first historical period included on the list, and add Barracoon by Ms. Zora Neale Hurston herself.
I’ll also finish Joiya’s novel, Petrified Flowers, a novel in verse. And I might try to squeeze in a book of poetry or two.
What book or books will you be reading during Black History Month?
I know that even when I finally finish the Canon the education will continue.
For an interview with Joiya Morrison-Efemini, and to read more about or purchase Petrified Flowers.
For the list of books contained on the Zora Canon
Wow Kim. I love your introspection and your drive as you begin to explore writings about black culture. You set wonderful examples for all of us.
Thank you Kim, but I feel like I’ve come to the game pretty late. I think growing up in our white hometown contributed to that delay and to the desire to know. And I’m always about the stories 🙂 I think of the stories that are passed down in my family and how they’re different than immigrant stories, strong ethnic stories, and of course the Black stories. Because of the histories of these groups, I imagine their stories are quite different than mine because my family had pretty much melted into the melting pot by the time our generation was born. I’ll address that in next Monday’s post. I hope you’ll check back in then, and thank you so much for reading and commenting.
Thanks, Kim, for this post. I recognized Blood Dazzler in the photo and remember finding a Youtube video of Patricia Smith reading the section about the residents of the nursing home that were left behind when Katrina hit. What a powerful reading! I also recognized Len Lawson’s book and remember how his poem about “All the Colors in My Crayon Box” made me feel. I checked the Zora List, and found Mildred Taylor–Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry–was one of my favorite young adult books. I read nearly every book in that series.
My granddaughter bought me a book for Christmas. She looked at the cover and thought it was about a family traveling the Oregon Trail. i was reluctant to read it because I knew it was really about slavery. When she asked me had I read it, I picked it up and started reading. I’m glad I did. The Known World by Edward P Jones won the 2004 Pultizer. The main character is Henry, a black man, born as a slave, whose father buys both his mother and him and sets them free. Then Henry buys his own plantation and–yes–his own slaves. When he dies, his wife, a free black, has no desire to free the 20 something slaves she owns. That novel really made me start to think about the many differing experiences that Southern blacks have had in the past. I told Jemma that book was a “keeper.”
Thanks for adding the link to the Zora Canon. Many titles looked interesting.
Hi Martha, yes that poem by Patricia Smith! It’s haunting, and I think that deepens, every time I hear her read it. So much power and emotion is a really brief poem. I love Len’s poem too, and when I read it I hear him speak it. I thin that’s what powerful poems do too. I’ve not read Mildred Taylor or Edward P Jones. Thank you for mentioning them, Jones’ book sounds especially interesting. We’ll never run out of good books to read, will we. I hope we all continue to learn more about each other – we all have nuances and different experiences and unless we talk about them and not assume, we’ll never really know each other.
I hope your writing is going well, and thank you for always having great books to suggest! You’re a ‘keeper’