From the Archives • March 3, 2014

Isabel Wilkerson’s Leaderless March that Remade America

Isabel Wilkerson is the epic tale teller of the Great Migration of Southern black people that remade America — sound, substance and spirit — in the 20th Century. The proof is in the soundtrack — ...

Isabel Wilkerson is the epic tale teller of the Great Migration of Southern black people that remade America — sound, substance and spirit — in the 20th Century. The proof is in the soundtrack — musical highlights of a comprehensive revolution. It was one of two modern migrations, it’s been said, that made American culture what it is — of blacks from the Jim Crow South, and of Jews from Central and Eastern Europe. The movement of masses is an ageless, ongoing piece of human history: in India and China today, more people migrate internally from village to city in one year than left the South from the onset of World War I (1915) to the end of the Civil Rights era (1970), as Isabel Wilkerson frames her story. But was there ever a migration that beyond moving people transformed a national culture as ours did? Songs, games, language, art, style, worship, every kind of entertainment including pro sports — in fact almost all we feel about ourselves, how we look to the world, changed in the sweep of Isabel Wilkerson’s magnificent story, The Warmth of Other Suns. Great swaths of the pop and serious culture I grew up in – my children as well – were fruit of Ms. Wilkerson’s story: Jazz and its immortals like Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Illinois Jacquet, Miles Davis, the Basie and Ellington bands and stars like Duke’s greatest soloist Johnny brussellHodges, whose family moved from Virginia to Boston very early in the century; Mahalia Jackson and Gospel music; Rhythm and Blues, Ray Charles, the Motown sound, the Jackson family and little Michael; sports immortals like Bill Russell and Jackie Robinson, and athletes without number are players in this story. Writers, actors, politicians, comedians… Toni Morison, Spike Lee, Michelle Obama are all children of the Great Migration.

It was “the first big step the nation’s servant class took without asking,” in one of many graceful Wilkerson lines about “a leaderless revolution.” But it was a graceless, usually violent, threatened, lonely experience. Isabel Wilkerson is speaking of the mothers, fathers and families that faced it down — the Russells of Monroe, Louisiana, in one example, who gave the world the greatest team-sport winner we ever saw (13 seasons with the Boston Celtics, 11 NBA championships), the most charismatic defensive player in any game on earth. But for the migration, Wilkerson observes, Bill Russell “might have been working in a hardware store. It’s hard to know — there are a lot of mills around Monroe, LA. It’s hard to imagine what would have happened to that enormous talent that changed a sport…

They lived under a caste system … known as Jim Crow. Bill Russell’s family experienced some of the harsh realities of that. One story involving Bill Russell’s father involves a day where he was just wanting to get gas. The custom in the Jim Crow South is that when an African American was in line for something, any white southerner who came up could cut in line. One white motorist after another had shown up and gone in front of him, and he had to wait, and he had to wait, and he had to wait. Eventually he decided he would just back out and drive the half-hour to the next gas station where he might be able to get served. As he was beginning to back out, the owner of the gas station stopped pumping gas for the white motorist he was working with and got a shotgun, held it to Bill Russell’s father’s head and said “You’ll leave when I tell you to leave. Don’t ever let me see you trying that again.” His mother was, around the same time, stopped on the street because she was dressed in her Sunday clothes. … A police officer stopped her and said “You go home right now and take that off. That is not what a colored woman should be wearing.” … The family decided that they would leave Monroe Louisiana, a very difficult decision, for a far away place, Oakland California. And it was there that Bill Russell had the opportunity to go to integrated schools, to be able to go to an NCAA school; he would never had had the opportunity to do that had they stayed in the South. He ended up leading the Dons of UCSF to two NCAA championships, and then of course came to the attention of the Celtics… Basketball would not be what we know it to be, had this Great Migration not occurred. And he’s but one person out of this entire experience of six million people who migrated.

Isabel Wilkerson in conversation with Chris Lydon, October 5, 2010.

Podcast • March 17, 2011

C. D. Wright in Triumph: One With Others

[ image] C. D. Wright is well known for assembling her patchwork poetry from local and vernacular fragments. Even with fame and standing, she has still the one-of-a-kind comic, passionate, choleric sound of an offbeat ...

C. D. Wright is well known for assembling her patchwork poetry from local and vernacular fragments. Even with fame and standing, she has still the one-of-a-kind comic, passionate, choleric sound of an offbeat oracle of the Arkansas Ozarks, where she grew up. So the National Book Critics Circle award last week for her book-length poem One With Others — after a near-miss for the National Book Award — seals a distinctly individual triumph of voice and art.

One With Others is her telling of one small fragment of the Civil Rights epic. The place is Forest City in the Arkansas Delta. The time is August 1969, a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, about 40 miles away. The central event is a March Against Fear led by one Sweet Willie Wine. “If white people can ride down the highways with guns in their trucks,” he insisted, “I can walk down the highway unarmed.” But the center of poem is the one white person who joined Sweet Willie and the black cause — an almost anonymous mother of seven (called V.) whose raging erudition and reckless love of freedom in action set C. D. Wright an example of the provocative life and impelled her to be a writer. “Just to act,” V. liked to say, “was the glorious thing.”

She had a brain like the Reading Room in the old British Museum. She could have donned fingerless gloves and written Das Kapital while hexagons of snowflakes tumbled by the windows…

She loved: Words. Cats. Long-playing records. Laughter. Men.

Alcohol. Cigarettes. The supernatural. It makes for a carnal list. Pointless to rank. Five in diapers at once — a stench, she claimed, she never got used to.

One With Others, p. 19.

Our conversation is about V., about Arkansas then and now, and about the mixed-media of One With Others. Food price lists of the time and place (“Jack Sprat tea bags only 19 cents. A whole fryer is 59 cents… Cherokee freestone peaches, 5 cans for $1.”) are juxtaposed with Dear Abby advice columns in the local paper (“DEAR TOO MUCH IRONING, I would iron his underwear. You are wasting more energy complaining and arguing than it takes to iron seven pairs of shorts once a week. Everybody has a problem. What’s yours?”) and intercut with the poet’s interviews 40 years later:

The woman who lived next door to the old house came outside to pick up her paper. I asked if she had known my friend V who lived there in the 1960s, and she allowed that she did.

Flat out she says, She didn’t trust me, and I didn’t trust her.

Then she surprised me, saying, She was right. We were wrong.

Then she shocked me, saying, They have souls just like us.”

One With Others, pp. 10 – 11

There’s a considered bending of forms here, in the spirit of collage.

Well, for me it’s poetry if I say it’s poetry. The genres are not exactly porous, they’re not exactly fluid. But conventions and genres are shifting, like everything else, and people are increasingly receptive to those changes. I think people who read and write prose miss poetry in their lives. And I think poets are tired of the isolation of poetry. I think the documentary record has a lot to yield that creative writers can explore to put a different lens on those facts.

C. D. Wright in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown University, March 16, 2011.

The reader’s impression is less that she has extended her poetry with the authenticity and detail of the documentary record; it’s more that she has lifted an historical account with the breath and cadence of poetry.

The house where my friend once lived, indefinitely empty.

Walnuts turning dark in the grass. Papers collected on the porch.

If I put my face to the glass, I can make out the ghost

of her ironing board, bottle of bourbon on the end.

One With Others, p. 7.

Podcast • March 15, 2011

Alan Lomax and the Salvation of American Song

We’re listening in awe and gratitude to the all-American sounds that Alan Lomax recorded and saved for all time. There’s outlaw minstrel Huddie Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly, singing a cocaine ode “Take a Whiff ...

We’re listening in awe and gratitude to the all-American sounds that Alan Lomax recorded and saved for all time. There’s outlaw minstrel Huddie Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly, singing a cocaine ode “Take a Whiff on Me” in 1934. Then Woody Guthrie accompanying himself, Pete Seeger and others on “Bound to Lose,” playing a guitar with a label on it: “This Machine Kills Fascists.” And then there are the strangely uplifting choruses of prison work songs from the Angola Convict Sugar Plantation in Louisiana and the Parchman Farm Penitentiary in Mississippi — songs like “Rosie,” which Lomax recorded in 1947 with prisoners, “C. B. and the Axe Gang.” As John Szwed writes in his vivid biography of the protean Lomax, “This was as close as twentieth-century people were going to come to the sound of slavery.”

Alan Lomax (1915 – 2002), The Man Who Recorded the World in Szwed’s subtitle, was the son of a proper folklorist at the University of Texas. The old folklore compiled texts; the new would revel in the truth of sound that had body language in it, too. Together in the early Thirties, father John and his teenage apprentice had set out across the South with early Edison recording equipment on what John Lomax used to call a “hobo-ing” trip. What Alan ended up compiling was a sort of unofficial, non-commercial people’s soundtrack of the Great Depression. Homegrown songs of spirit seem in retrospect to be pouring out of the suffering soil wherever Alan Lomax turned. Makes you wonder: what is the music of the meltdown today, and where’s to find it?

John Szwed [Martha Rose photo]

Alan Lomax brought a roaring confidence to new fields opening up in the 30s. There was something of the great Edison in Lomax’s recording chops as the tech kept improving. He had something of John Hammond’s talent-spotting gift in the period when Hammond was signing Billie Holiday and the Count Basie band for Columbia Records. “He’s got an infallible ear for the un-commercial,” Hammond said dismissively. There was also something of Orson Welles in Lomax’s showmanship — maybe something of Elvis Presley in Lomax’s fantasies. Lomax was open to rock’n’roll, despite its commercialism, and he was soft on Elvis — not least, John Szwed remarks in our conversation, because Elvis did what Alan wanted to do: liberate the white man’s hips! Even as he coopted so much black musical style, Elvis was the herald of a great healing shift in racial cultures.

Alan Lomax grew up to be a walking trove of all the world’s musics — especially its songs. By the end he’d built “folksonomies” of song elements and delivery styles, a whole anthropology in which the ways people sing marked the main links and differences between the cultures of continents. John Szwed is talking about an ecstatic genius whom many friends found “oppressive” if only because of his certainty that nobody anywhere knew what he knew about songs. “But Lomax was arguably one of the most influential Americans of the twentieth century,” Szwed writes, “a man who changed not only how everyone listened to music but even how they viewed America.”

Podcast • December 3, 2009

Whose Words These Are (17): Henri Cole

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Henri Cole. (42 minutes, 19 mb mp3) The poet Henri Cole got his French first name from his Armenian mother. From his father, a military man, he got ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Henri Cole. (42 minutes, 19 mb mp3)

The poet Henri Cole got his French first name from his Armenian mother. From his father, a military man, he got his Southern speech and, in what sounds like sadness and irony, “a knack for solitude.” Poetry was the place where as a young gay man he worked through yearning and anger to astringency and order. French, Armenian and English were the languages of his home growing up in Virginia in the sixties and seventies. “And hearing this braid of languages regularly spoken,” he has written, “heightened my sense of words as a kind of loge in which desires were illuminated, memory was recovered and poems would be assembled.” On publication of The Visible Man in 2005, Harold Bloom pronounced Henri Cole “a central poet of his generation. The tradition of Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane is beautifully extended … Keats and Hart Crane are presences here, and Henri Cole invokes them with true aesthetic dignity, which is the mark of nearly every poem in The Visible Man.”

I was an undergraduate student at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, and I was reading the novels that we all read — Woolf, James, Conrad. These are novelists who, you might say they’re novelists of the interior – and that kind of transcript of the interior life in the novel somehow got me interested in how some version of that is achieved in a concentrated way in poetry. I grew up in a military and Catholic household, so I was used to rigid structure and passion you might say, the passion of the mass and the structure of conforming military uniforms. My brothers were jocks and I didn’t really have a way to be myself, I guess I was probably looking for a way to be a man or masculine in some different way, and somehow poetry entered my life and it gave me a way to have a conversation. It made me sociable, I wasn’t very sociable — I was a pretty shy undergraduate so it made me sociable…

In Boston, now his home base, Henri Cole is reading to us mostly from his latest collection, Blackbird and Wolf (2007). Listen to his “Dune” and consider Colm Toibin’s observation that “The self in his work is explored as a diver might explore the ocean bed, it is ready to be surprised, frightened, puzzled, while the world above the water is noted with something close to calm and half-remembered acceptance. Cole’s poems at times display an amazing eloquence and command of form, but they are usually also impelled by sorrow, by dark knowledge, by pleasure, by the body and its discontents, and by history and what it has left us. It is not surprising that he has invoked the language of prayer as being an early influence.”

Our Proust Questionnaire

Q: Who is your favorite all-time fictional character?

A: I remember reading a French novel called The Wanderer when I was a young man, by Alain Fournier. I don’t remember the character’s name, but let’s just call him the Wanderer.

Q: What’s the quality above all that you look for in a poem?

A: Two qualities: there has to be a commitment to emotional truth, and there has to be a little concerto of consonants and vowels.

Q: What is your idea of a perfect poem?

A: Almost every poem of Elizabeth Bishop’s. James Merrill has a poem called “The Broken Home” that I love. In the Merrill poems, the thing I like so much is the combination of a high register of speech with total colloquial moments – I like that the poem has a range that can go from very high to very demotic in a few short lines.

Q: Who do you write for?

A: I don’t think too much about it. I am more committed to the truth and sound thing. If you think about too many people in your head, that’s like having a bunch of guns pointed at you, and that will censor you I think. When I write a poem, I hope to be in conversation with Merrill, who hopes to be in conversation with Cavafy or Whitman, and it goes back and back to Horace. But I guess I am also aware of the need to push all of that out of my head and just write the poem that I want to write.

Q: Who do you think of as fellow travelers in other media? Who is doing the work of Henri Cole’s spirit in a different way?

A: I am probably most nurtured by visual art. I love Joan Mitchell, Louise Bourgeois, Vija Celmins, Alice Neel. I’ve collaborated with two great visual artists, Jenny Holzer and Kiki Smith. Visual artists tend to be freer than writers are. Writers seem to have more boundaries – maybe it’s because making art is more physical, but they just seem freer. Also in relation to public events, speaking to the moment in history.

Q: What is the talent that you would most love to have, that you don’t yet?

A: I would love to be able to fly. I would love to be able to sing and fly like a bird. That would be fantastic.

Q: How would you like to die?

A: Alone, in a way that is not painful for anybody that loves me.

Q: What is the keynote of your personality as a poet?

A: Empathy.

Q: What is your motto?

A: I like Henry James’s motto. “Be kind, be kind, be kind.”

Henri Cole with Chris Lydon in Boston, 11.20.09.

Podcast • April 28, 2008

Douglas Blackmon: Neo-Slavery in Our Times

Douglas Blackmon of the Wall Street Journal has written a newsman’s history book with staggering implications about racial reality in America today. Douglas Blackmon: truth about Jim Crow The heart of the story is that ...

Douglas Blackmon of the Wall Street Journal has written a newsman’s history book with staggering implications about racial reality in America today.

doug blackmon

Douglas Blackmon: truth about Jim Crow

The heart of the story is that slavery in the American South ended not with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the end of the Civil War, but at the onset of World War 2. That is: state-sanctioned brutal and abusive bondage ended less than 70 years ago, well within the living memory of millions of Americans, black and white. The gap between “slave time” and now is not five or six generations, but one or two at most.

The sidewalks of Atlanta today were paved in the 20th Century with millions of bricks made by “slaves by another name” — by black men the city had seized and leased over to the ex-Mayor James English’s Chattahoochee Brick Company. Some of Atlanta’s finest families were in on neo-slavery, in Blackmon’s telling — men like Joel Hurt of Atlanta’s Trust Company. No guard could ever “do enough whipping for Mr. Hurt,” it was said. “He wanted men whipped for singing and laughing.”

Slavery by Another Name is Doug Blackmon’s complete revision of the Jim Crow story, with an astonishing breadth and depth of documentation and none of the old sugar-coating or vagueness around phrases like peonage and sharecropping. “Neo-slavery” was the hard-core of a public-private system that undid the freedoms that came with Reconstruction for most of thirty years after the Civil War, and then enforced a new reign of terror over all African-Americans in the South.

What began to happen at the end of the 19th Century was the crushing new phenomenon in which whites in the North gave up on the process and made the decision that whites in the South were going to be allowed to do whatever they wished. The Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision that sanctified segregation in 1896 gave a legal basis for all this. And by 1900 all of the Southern states had passed an array of laws designed to make it impossible for a black man to avoid being in violation of some ridiculous statute at all times.

Being black became the crime, and so any black man who could not prove that he had a job at a given time, any black man who sought to change employers, any black man who chose to sell the produce of his farm after dark, rather than selling to the white man nearest him… An endless number of statutes were passed which made it nearly impossible to avoid prosecution. These laws were designed to finish off the process of disenfranchising all black Americans in the South; and they effectively did it by creating this legal jeopardy that all African Americans had to live with.

The hammer that hung over their heads was the idea that if you get convicted of any of these meaningless crimes, you’ll end up in the horrifying circumstances of a slave mine or some other forced labor camp… There were endless beatings. In a relatively small work camp where you had 75 or 80 forced laborers, there might well be three to four hundred floggings in a given month. The men in the mines were beaten in the mornings if they failed to remove eight tons of coal the day before; and they were beaten at the end of the day if they failed to remove eight tons of coal that day. They were starved, and they were deprived of health care. The general attitude of the people who controlled these laborers was: as long as I’m able to keep them for a year or two years, I’ll get back my investment in the cost of acquiring them. If they die I can cheaply find another…

Douglas Blackmon in conversation with Chris Lydon about Slavery by Another Name, April 21, 2008

Slavery by Another Name is hard reading that ought to be required. At a moment of reckoning around race in our country, Doug Blackmon, a studious child of the Mississippi Delta, has offered a monumental contribution to an agonizing re-learning of who we all are.