Final Reflection Essay

Ben Timmons 

After reading Lucille Clifton’s poem, “surely i am able to write poems”, I am left with an interesting interpretation of her words. I believe Clifton is opening up to her readers and admitting the struggle that African American authors may face when it comes to writing only about trivial matters such as nature and what seems beautiful to them. This struggle is paired with the desire and urge to write about the reality and truth of living in the world as an African American human. Writing about the history of injustice and cultural suppression that has troubled African Americans in America is the “other poem” that Clifton feels is more important to write over poetry about natural beauty.

surely i am able to write poems 

celebrating grass and how the blue

in the sky can flow green or red

and the waters lean against the

chesapeake shore like a familiar

poems about nature and landscape

surely but whenever I begin

“the trees wave their knotted branches 

and…” why

is there under that poem always

an other poem?   

Lucille Clifton

The message in Clifton’s words has become quite apparent for me in much of the literature that we have read in English 337: African American Literature. The relevancy of Clifton’s poem can be found in Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”, and Percival Everett’s novel titled “The Trees”. Frederick Douglass details his experience of being enslaved while also bringing awareness to the history of slavery and inequality in America. Alice Walker creates a story that portrays the hesitancy of some African American folk in America to move on from their cultural roots and adapt into a new world of opportunity and transparency. Percival Everett depicts the ongoing issues of racial violence and injustice that have been rooted in some parts of America for over a hundred years. For these African American authors, these topics are the “other poems” that are desired to be written, like Clifton mentions in her poem.

In Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, the horrors of slavery and inequality are made aware. Douglass details his upbringing as someone who was enslaved at a very young age and never knew his age nor celebrated his birthday. He writes, “I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it” … “I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday” … “The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege” (Douglass 276). Beside the fact that Douglass was enslaved against his will, he was deprived of the simple pleasure of knowing his age and celebrating his birthday. This inequality and terror faced by Douglass must be told, for this matter is more important than literature about the trees and sky. Douglass continues to speak on the horrors that he witnessed while enslaved, “I have oft been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose” (Douglass 277). This harsh reality outlined by Douglass is crucial for others in America to hear, it creates a sense of belonging for those who may have previously been enslaved or those who may have faced the inequality and injustice forced upon African American people. I think this is what Clifton feels in her poem, the desire and urge to bring these experiences as African African individuals to light.

In the short story titled “Everyday Use”, Alice Walker achieves something similar to that of Douglass. Walker details a story about a Mother and her two daughters who struggle with leaving some of their deeply rooted traditions behind and finding a new identity in the world. In doing this, she brings attention to a dilemma that other African Americans may also face. One daughter, Maggie, lives with her Mother, who is hesitant to let go of tradition, and sticks to the status quo of her culture alongside her Mother. The other daughter, Wangero, is a college educated and religiously inspired woman who tries to shift her mother and sister’s lifestyles by encouraging them to change their ways and make something of themselves as African American women. Wangero tells her sister, “You ought to try to make something of yourself too, Maggie. It’s really a new day for us. But from the way you and Mama still live you’d never know it” (Walker 1725). Walker brings awareness to the idea that African American culture and tradition has been both suppressed and made inferior by others in America. Now that the world is beginning to change with more opportunities and attention for African American people, there is an identity and lifestyle crisis that ensues, as some do not want to lose their traditions and deeply rooted culture. While Alice Walker is more than capable of writing a short story about superfluous concerns, she, just like Lucille Clifton, feels there are more important topics to bring attention to as an African American woman and author. This short story about African American struggle and concern creates a sense of community for those who may be dealing with something similar.

In addition to Frederick Douglass’ narrative and Alice Walker’s short story, I see a relationship between Clifton’s message in her poem and Percival Everett’s novel, “The Trees”. Everett’s confronting novel about revenge and the dark history of Money, Mississippi is not solely a mysterious crime tale which details lynching and murder. Rather, Everett does more with his novel and brings attention to the racial violence and inequality that is still prevalent in the world. Everett delivers his message by incorporating a couple concepts that our class has been using for direction throughout this semester. First, Everett incorporates the idea of straddling in his novel by straddling the boundary of morality. In an interview with The Guardian’s Anthony Cummins, Everett is asked the following question, “What led you to write a novel about lynching?” Everett admits, “While I very seldom say what any of my novels mean, one thing I think is true is that there’s a distinction to be made between morality and justice: justice might not always feel moral to us, and that’s a scary thought” (Everett). Everett certainly straddles on the line of morality by using black on white murder to represent justice and equity. This is a bit scary, like Everett says, however, in a town where the law is all but fair, using scenarios like this is sometimes necessary to bring awareness to a crucial problem like racism and inequality.

Everett uses the concept of straddling in another way as well. Everett shows what it’s like to straddle between two Americas: one white and the other black. The difference in these two worlds is the acceptance and inclusion of African American lives. Money, Mississippi is certainly an America where acceptance and inclusion of African American lives is lacking. This is evident in Everett’s character named Gertrude. Gertrude works at a diner in Money where she uses the alias of Dixie to get better tips and create the appearance of  “more white”. We find out later in the novel that Gertrude is actually a black woman. 

“Excuse me for asking, but are you Black?”

“Why yes”

“I knew it, I didn’t know that you’re Black. I didn’t know that, but I knew there was something. Does Whitey know?

“They know. They forget” (Everett 69).

If Gertrude lived in a town where there were not two separate worlds, there is a good chance she would not have to use a “white” name while she worked and would not be asked about her race when someone suspected her to be black. Everett depicts what it likes to straddle between two worlds and essentially live two different lives. This is a result of the lack of acceptance and inclusion that many African American people face in real life.

The next concept that Everett includes in an attempt to bring awareness to deep and meaningful issues is transparency, a topic that has resurfaced in much of the literature we’ve read for this class. Everett is not shy with his transparency of the history of racial violence in America, specifically with the infamous lynching of Emmett Till which took place in Money in 1955. In the same interview between Cummins and Everett, Everett is asked about his inspiration and influence for the story. He answers, “A lot of experimental novelists experiment for the sake of experimentation, but if it doesn’t add meaning, I have no interest in it; the only reason I come to this art form is because I’m interested in playing with how meaning gets constructed” (Everett). Everett experiments with this novel but makes sure to be transparent in his writing about racial violence and inequality in America. The infamous lynching of Emmett Till is brought up multiple times by Everett, especially through one of his characters, Granny C, who was responsible for wrongly accusing Emmett Till of offending her which led to his murder. 

“What was you thinking on, Granny C?”

Granny C stared off again. “About something I wished I hadn’t done. About the lie I told all them years back on that n***** boy.”

“Oh Lawd,” Charlene said. “We on that again.”

“I wronged that little pickaninny. Like it say in the good book, what goes around comes around” (Everett 9).

The power of literature such as Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”, and Pericval Everett’s “The Trees” can be seen in the portrayal of  important matters like racial injustice, African American culture, and the history of slavery in America. Writing about these concerns instead of trivial matters such as natural beauty in the world is what Lucille Clifton pushes in her poem “surely i am able to write poems”.

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