Deconstruction of identity is a recurring motif in African-American literature. The exploration of the physical, emotional and spiritual devastation wrought by slavery continues to haunt its characters be it in literature, poetry or music. The most dangerous of slavery’s effects is its negative impact on the individual’s sense of self. Alienation underpins much of Black American writing. Slaves were told they were subhuman and were traded as commodities, whose worth could be expressed only in dollars. Consequently the much criticized “one theme” of African-American writing (slavery) cannot be escaped. In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, for example, Paul D – a typical exponent – describes his heart as a “tin tobacco box.” After his traumatizing experiences at Sweet Home and, especially, at the prison camp in Alfred, Georgia, he locks away his feelings and memories in this “box,” which has, by the time Paul D arrives at 124, “rusted” over completely. By alienating himself from his emotions, Paul D hopes to preserve himself from further psychological damage. In order to secure this protection, however, Paul D sacrifices much of his humanity by foregoing feeling and gives up much of his selfhood by repressing his memories. Although Paul D is convinced that nothing can pry the lid of his box open, his strange, dreamlike sexual encounter with Beloved – perhaps a symbol of an encounter with his past – causes the box to burst and his heart once again to glow red.
In “The Spanish Word for Solitude,” Reginald Dwayne Betts writes:
into a cell. Soledad is
the six fingers
I need to remember
the bright orange
of my county
around my waist
a yesterdays yoked
into my cuffed hands.
American prisons are the new slave ships for Betts. The image of a black man in chains and cuffs is an image that for many is much to contemplate. Here in this disturbing book of poetry Shahid Reads His Own Palm, Betts takes us back into the whole African-American Diaspora. A latter day Paul D, in ‘yesterdays yoked’ – the lid is rusted solid on the tragedy that is the Black man and woman’s experience in the new world. Slaves were laid in rows in ships and stacked like coffins to maximize profit. In “Red Onion State Prison,” the modern day slave ship sets sail:
A warehouse of iron
bunks: straight lines
and right angles.
flush against the gutted
side of a mountain
Inside, white paint…
a slender metal rod
then scrapes it against
concrete and stretches night…
years of sentences
beckon over heads and hearts,
silent, a promise, like mistletoe.
Unlike Paul D, Betts is the antithesis, a black man in modern day America shackled and very aware of its implication on the present: and this young man is trying to say something. He talks about his father who “never voted.” He tells us about trying to write poetry with chains and cuffs on. He gives a voice to the dispossessed, poorly educated and those on the margins of society. From his slave ship he takes his “two inch plastic pen” and tears at the flesh of that joke word conditioning. He asks why it is that Black men fill the new slave ships of America: is it that Black people are prone to rape, kill, steal and so on, or is it that being bought for dollars and treated as subhuman has legacy? From “Juvenile’s Letter”:
bell on this table,
sure as the no
I got from the parole
board, my eighth turn-
down ‘cause the
board thinks thirteen
years in a box isn’t
enough to turn the
wildness in a man
whose father never voted
but more rage, but a brush
fire waiting to happen &
memories, those lies
that fold my body
into a half-
moon wrapped around
this desk & threaten to drown
what refuses to listen.
There’s Paul D’s box again. The new slave ships are full but there are people trying to set the human beings in them free. In his introduction – which is a poetry in itself – Betts gives thanks in this way which tells his real story:
This book has a long list of people who ushered it out of my head and onto the page. Thanks to everyone I met inside the walls of Fairfax County Jail, Southampton Correctional Center, Red Onion State Prison, Sussex 1 State Prison, Augusta Correctional Center, Coffeewood Correctional Center... Thanks to Elizabeth for making me think about what a long line I come from. Thanks to TSE for encouraging me to write a poem that moves in the world like I do... To everyone who has cared to believe me when I called myself poet. To Tony Hoagland, for responding to a letter written from a young man aspiring to be a poet despite handcuffs... Special thanks to my Moms, who wrote the first poem I ever read. And for my wife Terese and our son, Micah, who both give me reason to add to the song I sing.
This book is disturbing. Technically it is solid and very American in shape. Its themes are clear, to the point, and very accurate. Alienation and deconstruction of self fill almost every line. I found myself concentrating not on poetic style but on what this poet was saying – and perhaps this is where poetry has to be made to turn to, or perhaps it is just another facet of the form that adds to its richness. I must admit I threw a bit of prejudice at this book when I first considered it, but on reading I just became more and more disturbed. I or you could easily, very easily, with one bad choice be inside that slave ship, a ship that really needs to be cast adrift and sunk round about Guantanamo Bay. That America’s prisons and legal processes are an affront to its ideals and incredible gifts. And Betts takes us onto the ship and lets us experience something – just something of the reality of despair that is the lot of too many African-American men and women. And that the deconstruction of Paul D and others is still dreadfully tangible. And given grace to retrace the story continues (that one theme) from the work of Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Richard Bruce and Nugent Aaron Douglas. It can be found in the songs of Simon, Dylan, Wonder and many more. It can be seen in the novels of Twain, Morrison and dozens of others. It can be seen everywhere in America and beyond as in a young gifted and black who threw his Olympic medal into the river questioning his alienation and rejection. That a country that promises so much to the individual, except if you come from the slave ship. And out of personal tragedy Betts takes that euphemism conditioning and historical neglect and turns it to fine art. And as Langston Hugh’s said in 1926 in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”:
I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I danced in the Nile when I was old
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I've known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
Hats off, bows low, steps back.