This is the official blog of Northern Arizona slam poet Christopher Fox Graham. Begun in 2002, and transferred to blogspot in 2006, FoxTheBlog has recorded more than 670,000 hits since 2009. This blog cover's Graham's poetry, the Arizona poetry slam community and offers tips for slam poets from sources around the Internet. Read CFG's full biography here. Looking for just that one poem? You know the one ... click here to find it.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Slam Tutorial: Confront Your Own Cultural Heritage, Part 1

It's not easy confronting one's history, especially if it has a dark history, like Southern Whites confronting racism.

Jason Carney, who I first met on when I was on tour in Dallas in 2002, has a poem that carries particular resonance for me. In "Southern Heritage," Carney addresses racism from the perspective a white Southerner. As a non-Southerner I was guilty along with many others of splitting white Southerners into two factions: the "enlightened egalitarian" white person - the common stereotype that we non-Southerners attribute to more-or-less racial equality in the South - and the "ignorant redneck" who seemingly hates gays, minorities, always votes Republican and would rather return to Jim Crow segregation if not outright slavery.

Of course, I learned in my later teens that racial issues in the South were far more gray.

This knowledge, however, did not alleviate my own fear of my family's potential history: my grandmother and mother are both from Atlanta, thus, my young mind used to theorize, they must be racist, thus, am I?

I wanted to ignore this "unfortunate" aspect of my history growing up lest I begin to think of myself as someone from a racist bloodline, based perhaps incorrectly on my grandfather's word choices, which I now attribute more to cultural and generational nuances than racist attitudes (in my early 20s I came to the realization that my grandfather's attraction to beautiful women 40 to 50 years younger than him was 100% colorblind, which put me at ease with him in the years before his death).

However, in September 2008, I asked my grandmother about her feelings and history following a speech I wrote for a seminar analyzing Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address as a poem. At the time, it wasn't a question of race but rather politics I was asking for. I learned that my great-grandfather was something of a civil rights leader in his own way, though he probably wouldn't have thought so. Aside from chastising people who used racial epithets in his home, he helped black plumbers get their plumbing licenses, which I found rather cool at the time. I would assume that his choice wasn't one necessarily of self-righteous social equality but more of simple efficient rationality that seems to be the hallmark of my Redfield bloodline: "These guys can do the work, but they can't get licenses because of how they look? That's just stupid. I will help them."

My friend Lee Sullivan told me recently that that was an even more important step toward social equality that I had first suspected.

In the end, I think this sort of Redfield rational thought rather than overt idealism is what helped bring down Jim Crow and end other social inequalities: "This is how it is? This is inefficient and does not get work accomplished. It must change. If no one else does it, I will."

There's a poem in all this, but I haven't found the angle as yet.

"Southern Heritage"
By Jason Carney
Knowledge cures ignorance; if you're in the know, be fucking contagious.
This is for my Mamaw and my daughter, Olivia, the beginning and end of who I am.

My southern heritage lies in the smell of June.
It was my Mamaw.
She was half Choctaw, half snuff, half crazed by the spirit of the wind given her accent.

She called it "a touch" . . . she could . . . see things.

She'd catch a firefly with her tongue.

Rub the swollen fluorescence of their bellies to my forehead, a good vision on my birthday.

And she always told me I would grow to be a man who would always know life by the way it felt.

Alone I walked in the wandering reflection of dreams.
I should stand strong and tall as Papaw cause he was a man who knew life by the way it felt.

And his heart was in my eyes, his soul was in my breath.

My southern heritage lies in their simplicity; poverty and faith, baseball games on an old AM radio and the closeness of my family sharing a Sunday supper.

My southern heritage was Sundays.

Baptist Revivals . . . deacons passing the altar plates, deep voices from the choir urging me to go tell it on the mountain because Jesus Christ is Lord.

And I do love that old hymn . . . but I cant think about those fond memories of childhood anymore without seeing them through the pessimism of these eyes which are of a man, and I have to ask myself what kind of truth those old white baptists found on them mountain tops.

Why couldn't they hear the voices dangling from the branches of the elms when death could have been peeled away into the forgotten generation after generation woven into our skin, into our bones?
All because they were silent.
Practiced at turning their heads.

Their heritage lies in the shades of my skin, it's twisted and scarred, worn by their words "colored", "negro" . . . and "nigger."

So why don't we go find the truth on the mountain that says my southern heritage came clothed in white sheets and allows a rebel flag to hang this very day over the capitol of Mississippi?

My southern heritage spent centuries of time where people are silent . . . and practiced at turning their heads.

So we're the threads of rope that pulled James Byrd to his death along the back roads of Jasper, Texas.
Less than two hundred miles from where I live, ignorance reigns.

My southern heritage spans centuries of time, where people are silent and practiced at turning their heads.

It boils under my skin when my eyes don't have heart, when my soul is not in my breath, see . . . if I'm gonna grow to be that man who knows life by how it feels then these lessons gotta be mine to see the truth of and find the responsibility to teach my little girl.

Cause I don't want her southern heritage to lie in the shades of the skin. She's half Thai . . . half Irish, Choctaw, and snuff.

And I'm gonna catch fireflies with my tongue, rub the swollen fluorescence of their bellies to her forehead, a good vision on her birthday, where she will travel amongst the dead, and learn the lessons of their lives, spill the dust of stars and planets, exist in the deepest reaches of the mind.
She will tell the truth on that mountaintop, she will not succumb to the wounds of her bones.
She will not be silent.
And she will not ever be practiced at turning her head.

Jason Carney is a former skinhead who now uses poetry to continue to reform himself and heal others.

As a young man, Carney was sent to a juvenile detention center after several violent incidents involving gay bashing and racial intolerance. While in the detention center, Carney was roomed with a young gay male who was HIV-positive. A friendship formed from what could have been a volatile situation. The experience changed the way Carney saw people that were different from him. After Carney was released, he tried to look up his new friend only to find that he had lost his battle with the disease.

Carney has made it his life work to heal and help eliminate intolerance.

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