by Artress Bethany White
Trio House Press, 2019
In her second collection, My Afmerica, Artress Bethany White grapples with the grief of generations of Black mothers in America. Her title reflects the reality that black skin, for many whites, is an unwelcome insertion into white consciousness of country, and, of course, that being Black in America is its own cultural experience, a world apart. My Afmerica, a blending of “African” and “American,” is forged by the insertion of the letter “f” into the word “America.” That disruptive “f” caught my attention.
JS: Your title is a linguistic play on identity that results from the insertion of a single additional letter, “F,” into the word “America.” What prompted your title? How do you parse its variety of possible meanings?
ABW: I was intent on writing about the very different experiences Black people have in America, while also allowing room for more universal experiences. The additional “F” as you say, was my attempt to provide appropriate nomenclature alongside documentation of that difference.
The collection is part self-reflection and part elegy to the thousands of Black Americans who have died in this country as a result of racial prejudice. White writes with passion and respect for lives cut short: Bianca Roberson, James Craig Anderson, Sandra Bland, a relative lynched in 1881, a young man who commits suicide, one brother killed by another in a tragic accident, and the innumerable slaves of the Old South. “Accept that I have penned another elegy,” she writes in “Abecedarian for Peace,” that “the dead occupy my brain.”
JS: Of the many elegies in your collection—all of them moving—which is closest to your own heart, and why?
ABW: While I care about every lost life I have written about and so many more that I have not, the poem “Mississippi in June” for James Craig Anderson continues to touch me deeply every time I read it. I found out about his murder while reading the now defunct African American publication Jet magazine. The publication was a mainstay in Black homes for generations; it furnished brief but significant news stories culled from national stories relative to Black life in America. The fact that he was run over and killed by a carful of white youth tore at my heart. I was familiar with that level of hate from my years as a Black young person growing up in Massachusetts. I learned the n-word at age ten when my best friend called me one after we got into some tussle over little kid nonsense on a playdate. She had clearly heard it at home, and probably had no idea that her use of the word would immediately end our friendship, which it did. Her name was Linda S. As much as we may struggle to remember names as we age into adulthood, we never forget the names of those who irrevocably change the way we think.
The term went on to follow me through middle school and high school. Despite the verbal violence inflicted on me as a young person, an important takeaway came from this personal history; there is no such thing as childhood innocence, only early opportunities to educate children about race. I identified with James Craig Anderson’s murder because my spirit had been slain by verbal violence over the course of years. His story was my story in extremis, so I felt compelled to document how far this country, and Mississippi in particular, still needed to evolve to achieve racial equity. Their recent decision to remove the Confederate emblem from the Mississippi state flag is another step in the right direction. In the context of big-picture change, his death was certainly a part of Mississippi’s self-reckoning.
JS: In “Mississippi in June,” you write, “the meanest / curse you can think of / … / is Mississippi.” What will it take to remove the curse from the state of Mississippi?
ABW: As far as the removal of the Confederate emblem from an American state banner, as I’ve already stated, well it’s about time. For too long in the South, people have viewed the Confederate flag as something only ignorant Southerners from the hill country flew. What people did not acknowledge is that a lot of individuals around the nation, from all economic classes and regions, wear the sentiments of that flag inscribed on their hearts. Removing the symbol as a faux representation of a diverse state is one step closer to encouraging people to change what’s in their hearts. The “curse” is the loss of humanity that plagues people when they espouse racist values. Raise the bar on your humanity, and the curse will be shed.
Alternating with the elegies are poems that explore the personal ramifications of skin color, citizenship, and day-to-day life, as in White’s poems exploring her interracial marriage and her relationships with the sons from her husband’s first marriage, a stepdaughter, and a biological daughter. In “Notes from the State of Tennessee” the speaker says, “No tutorial / prepared me to raise you here, / a white Southern boy,” and in “Coils,” muses, “Daughter, / your hair will govern your life.” And the magnificent “Everything Resides in a Name” illuminates the American dysphoria and disorientation when it comes to skin color and its range of hues: “The day the white babysitter / calls you colored, you believe / your birth parents were rainbows.”
JS: One theme of My Afmerica is skin color and its relationship to identity. I’ve been working lately on poems about Ancient Greece, and came across an article suggesting that the ancient Greek language didn’t classify persons by race. Why, do you think, the color spectrum remains critical to identity in our country? Will that ever change? Should it change? Would you feel a sense of loss if you woke up one day (as in a sci-fi movie) and the people around you no longer saw you as Black?
ABW: Racial particularity continues to be important in this country because in many ways it serves as a default measure of a person’s economic destiny. In America, economic destiny also impacts education, healthcare, and quality of life. This is a tragic reality. Should this system of institutionalized racism change? Resoundingly, yes it should. I am not concerned with whether or not the world sees me as Black, it is the associative value placed on that designation which concerns me.
A guiding dichotomy of place and displacement finds a brilliant focus in “An American Moor in Spain,” which parses the speaker’s anger and disorientation when a white German boy insists the color of her skin is equivalent to a continent (Africa) and not her nationality (American):
This is not treason;
I am an American, though black.
I am stolen goods
but can trace my family back
three hundred years on U.S. soil,
longer than Whitman’s leaves of grass,
longer than this anger will last
as I walk away muttering
I am an American.
“I am stolen goods”: My people were forcibly inserted onto U.S. soil, and, also, I’m part of the same earth and grass that the white poet Whitman evokes. My ancestors have long been part of American soil—don’t overlook that.
In one iconic moment of “Song of Myself,” Whitman writes, “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, / If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.” White pivots on this quintessential literary reference: Her ancestors are among Whitman’s multitudes, yet, “under your bootsoles,” also triggered, for me, the horrifying image of a slave’s neck beneath a master’s boot, and I read this poem prior to the horrifying murder of George Floyd. The last words of each line—and White weights her end-words throughout—generate chills up the spine. Slavery, the original American sin, is part of the black soil that nurtures and buries us.
JS: I was captivated by “An American Moor in Spain,” especially by your incorporation of Whitman. Those lines from “Song of Myself” had always been comforting to me (I read them at my grandmother’s funeral); but not now. What are your feelings about Whitman in the context of your poem, and in the context of the American canon, generally? Particularly given recent calls to re-examine his work in light of his racism?
ABW: In the context of my poem, the use of Whitman serves as a reminder that enslaved people are often left out of a respectful American national narrative because they were brought to what was once British America under duress and certainly not of their own volition. Yet, even enslaved persons recognized and took pride in their contributions toward the building of this nation because many knew in their hearts that one day they would gain freedom. In fact, Black freedmen in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, circulating around enslaved communities, served as a reminder of this potentiality. Now here is the thing: when Americans think of literary voices that express the spirit of American democratic sensibilities, they often harken back to Whitman because of his accessible poetic voice and the fact that he wrote about diverse populations in his poetry and prose. That said, Whitman’s oeuvre only goes back so far. I can actually trace my family history in America back to the early eighteenth century, yet my lineage in America is often discounted because it involves the history of my ancestors’ servitude.
As far as Whitman’s documented racism, I think it is important to examine the complexity of prominent citizens on the American literary, artistic, and political landscape. We must not perpetuate in the minds of students of these histories that acclaimed figures are flawless because of their recognized achievement. White privilege is real, and Whitman enjoyed that privilege. His casual use of terms like “darkies” and worse to reference Black people in his work is an expression of this privilege, and we should interrogate that alongside his negotiations of democracy in his writing. Hateful speech is as damaging as physical hate crimes. He continues to have influence in the American canon, but his life gains even more value in our national discourse on diversity if we address the legacy of his racist values alongside the poetry he rendered on the page.
Furthermore, I am certainly not the only poet who alludes to Whitman because of his stature within the canon measured against his faulty democratic idealism. If we take for example the poem “Song of Myself,” in section 6 the poet writes about leaves of grass being equally distributed among black, white and so on. Yet poet Natalie Diaz writes about the actual inequity within natural spaces in her poem “Reservation Grass,” a clear allusion to Whitman and the economic realities for that community falling way outside his demotic paean to grass rights.
As a nation we watch on a daily basis how murky the semiotics of racial discourse can become when people bearing Nazi symbols are referred to as good people. The same can be said for touting a poet who expressed democratic ideals while referring to populations of color by the same derogatory terms used by white supremacists for generations. The issue of who and how we teach becomes a political, pedagogical, and national concern—and often contemporary poets take a leadership role in this endeavor.
White explores these devastating themes through the lens of motherhood. For example, the systemic murder of Black Americans in her elegies are all through a mother’s eyes. James Craig Anderson was “still a lap baby” in 1963 when civil rights workers were murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi. White imagines his mother kissing “the top of his head, / baby hair softly curling,” believing Anderson would “inherit a better life” as the result of the Civil Rights Act.
Just so, the speaker of “Family Planning,” smells “the fresh scent / of a baby’s breath while nestled / in the crook of a new mother’s neck,” while the child’s father extends to it an inchworm carefully measuring steps—toward racial justice, one hopes? All we have is hope.
JS: You envision Anderson’s mother believing that the world will be a better place for her son, which did not come to pass. What do you wish for your own children’s future? What do you think is realistic?
ABW: I am in an interracial marriage with a transracial family composition. I have first-hand experience with the privilege experienced by my white sons, and the racism experienced by my black daughters. As a family, we discuss and share this positionality on a regular basis. I think many parents who face challenges on the road of parenting could say that they don’t mind their children being seen as different, they just want them to be respected despite the difference.
That “f” inserted between the capital “A” of America, and its second letter, “m,” sums up so much of this book, as if planting a flag into the “am,” the being of America(n). I read the “f” as feminine, motherhood forming the good earth up through which these poems curl like blades of grass, sharp insights that cut to the bone.
And, of course, as in “Abecedarian for Peace,” White still hopes for a better future:
Kindred, I say consider peace.
Lofty goals can birth kindness in times of crisis.
Meet eyes to pass the love,
Not the hate that elongates days.
- My Afmerica: A Review & Conversation with Artress Bethany White - August 26, 2020