Yikes, it’s been five days since I shared and did an analysis of a poem. Fortunately, there’s another great one courtesy of the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day from Aug. 17.
This poem is Ashley M. Jones’, ALL Y’ALL REALLY FROM ALABAMA, and it starts with a quote from Martin Luther King:
“…The straitjackets of race prejudice and discrimination do not wear only southern labels. The subtle, psychological technique of the North has approached in its ugliness and victimization of the Negro the outright terror and open brutality of the South.”
― Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,Why We Can’t Wait (Beacon Press, 2011)
this here the cradle of this here
nation—everywhere you look, roots run right
back south. every vein filled with red dirt, blood,
cotton. we the dirty word you spit out your
mouth. mason dixon is an imagined line—you
can theorize it, or wish it real, but it’s the same
old ghost—see-through, benign. all y’all from
alabama; we the wheel turning cotton to make
the nation move. we the scapegoat in a land built
from death. no longitude or latitude disproves
the truth of founding fathers’ sacred oath:
we hold these truths like dark snuff in our jaw,
Black oppression’s not happenstance; it’s law.
Before I address the poem, according to the Academy of American Poets, Jones is a teacher of creative writing at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, and also directs the Magic City Poetry Festival in Birmingham, Alabama. As far as I can tell, it seems like this poem is from 2020, so it’s fresh. Jones has a book coming out called REPARATIONS NOW! in 2021. She also has a WordPress blog here.
First, aesthetically, I love lower casing everything, including “alabama” because when you get hit at the end with “Black oppression’s not happenstance; it’s law” and “Black” is capitalized, that adds an extra punch. But also, the title itself is all-caps, which I interpret as, this is advocacy or a socially-minded poem — it has a message — the all-caps is meant to be something of a bullhorn, “LOOK HERE AND LISTEN,” kind of thing.
I also love Jones starting with that MLK quote, and it’s one I haven’t seen before actually. Essentially, the poem is a reflection of the sentiment in the quote: Unseen racism of the North can be just as insidious as the outward racism of the South.
The Mason-Dixon Line was seen as a demarcation point between slavery in the South and ostensibly freedom in the North. But Jones pushes back against that idea with the line, “mason dixon is an imagined line—you/can theorize it, or wish it real, but it’s the same/old ghost—see-through, benign.”
There is no line. The North is just as pernicious as the South on the issue of racism, so “all y’all from alabama.” It’s weird to even discuss, “Is the South or North worse?” because we don’t need to do Brutality Olympics, but there’s a point where making somewhere in there. That is, there’s something particularly awful about the North to the extent that the issues are beneath the surface (redlining, housing regulations, zoning regulations, etc. etc.) and that the North, thanks to the bluntness of the South, has a juxtaposition and story to tell as well that, “Hey, we’re not those guys. We’re not racist like them.”
But again, NIMBYism and other regulations and schooling issues in the North have been just as much of a straitjacket on black men and women, as MLK said, as the “straight terror and open brutality of the South.” The racism and prejudice only manifest differently.
Also, the imagery of “we the dirty word you spit out your mouth” with “we hold these truths like dark snuff in our jaw” is fantastic. Because in a sense, spitting out those “truths” like dark snuff is tainted by the truths not being realized. The truths are belied by black people not being whole and being that “dirty word” spit out.
Finally, it’s worth emphasizing the point, as I interpret it, of the last line: “Black oppression’s not happenstance; it’s law.” Sometimes you get the sense that to coddle the American imagination, we tell ourselves that racism is, in fact, happenstance, that it was something that “just happened” and we’ve fortunately rid ourselves of it thanks to MLK and others. That’s the shortened, sweetened, and coddled version of American history.
But the reality is that black oppression and racism were codified into law. Killing, harming, and otherwise disadvantaging black people was either the law of the land, tacitly endorsed, or not stopped for hundreds of years. The entire governmental apparatus worked to keep that boot on the neck of black people generation after generation. It was not happenstance. It was law.
I like writing, and therefore poetry, that pulls no punches. I’m not averse to politically-minded or socially-minded poetry, either. This poem achieves that pulls-no-punches attitude, but with a message. That message? Look in the mirror, y’all from alabama, “everywhere you look, roots run right/back south. every vein filled with red dirt, blood, cotton.” What an image.
This is a pulls-no-punches gut-punch of a poem with some of the most stark imagery I’ve read in poetry in some time.