If summer found you like it found me, dear reader, it saw you spending those noon-tall days with five or six books at your side. The green and flitting light advanced and stilled, as if to notice you reading from a variety of genres, even if your primary one is poetry or fiction. Still, we don’t read from five or six novels, nor five or six books of poems. Instead, we read from a single collection of poetry or fiction at a time, which we read first each morning, and we like nothing more, later in the day, than to enhance this reading with books from three to six other discourses. Books on psychology, philosophy, history and cultural studies, or whatever else—each with dog-eared pages and make-shift bookmarks, depending.
Why do we read like this? Your reason might be different than mine. But I read for variety because I embrace (with an intensity off-putting to some more disciplined, goal-oriented, readers I know) how language and the ideas in these books rise and fly from one highly sugared, phlox-like cluster of verse to land, with sticky legs and proboscis, onto the nectar guides of this or that prose, and I enjoy how these connections synthesize new nodes of insight and understanding.
These nonfiction reads will often lead to even more texts and—spiraling into the collective gray matter and out again, carrying new ideas and questions—topple any plan I might have had for finishing my sunflower-high stack of poetry.
I can’t help it. Allowing the propositional force of a poem, novel or story to advance the desire to know, to attempt to get at it, despite so many random changes in direction, feels regenerative. Because when reading as an act of recursive uncovering, we’re hopefully evading the zeitgeist’s status quo, with its teeth-whitening, linear need to gloss over and downplay what’s real with lies and half-truths.
This past June, for example, questions and new understandings from several readings aligned as I read “Antiquing," the eleventh poem in dark // thing (Pleiades Press, 2019), Ashley M. Jones’ stunning second collection and winner of the Lena-Miles Weaver Todd Prize for Poetry. The morning before, after beginning Jones’ book, I had been reading from three other books: Empire: A History of Our Things & How We Became a Culture of Consumers by Frank Trentman (a seven-hundred page textual museum of material history I’ve been reading for two summers now); The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects (photographs of artifacts and short-essay explications of them by Richard Kurin; Penguin 2013); and White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo & Michael Eric Dyson (Beacon Press, 2018). As ideas from these nonfiction texts began flying back and forth from “Antiquing," I also dug out Agni 74, a thematic issue on objects as relics and repositories of cultural and personal memory, and I found Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s essay “Should Blacks Collect Racist Memorabilia?”
That first day, I read and reread Jones’ compact and viscerally powerful prose poem, which shows Jones’ speaker, as the poet herself, at a flea market in Mobile, Alabama, engaged in more than a close reading of household objects from the past hundred years. As she walks through, she handles these things with her critical, poem-making mind’s eye—“vintage comic books, a cast-iron pan with corn-shaped wells, that one green desk lamp everyone’s grandma has"—she registers and inventories valences of their half-life, and she senses what Agni editor Sven Birkerts calls “palpable collective feelings” of the past. When she sees “Smilin’ Sam from Alabam," a nut-cracker in the form of “a [preacher’s] disembodied black head," its “skin an ebony mirror,” she resists seeing her identity distorted by its reflection. Instead, she looks beyond the collective white racist gaze that had shaped this deforming thing, and she traces the “rope around” the object’s “neck” and invites us to consider this object in its orbits around the sun from a near-century of whites lynching blacks to our nation’s current brutal epoch. “I wonder if the rope around your neck is for storage, or, if even you, ceramic and glossy like a preacher, must be strung up from a tree,” Jones writes. And her inquiry, as all good questions do, would lead to interrogations about constructed realities. And, her poem, as all real poems do (to use John Berryman’s term), resisted my desire to feel good about what’s expressed there.
After that first reading, when I put dark // thing down and looked out over my rain-swollen flower garden, I asked myself a series of Socratic questions, each deeply naïve, and the disgusted and ashamed part of my white identity answered them:
"What kind of cretin would design, market and sell such a degrading object, and why?"
"The white, anti-black racist kind, obviously, Marcus," I thought. "One who needed to actively dehumanize black people."
"Right, but why would anti-black items like this be okay with most white people in an American shop or household?"
"Come on, remember counting four confederate flags displayed in three yards and one storefront in the Arkansas Ozarks last fall? Remember flipping them each the bird like it made a difference?"
"I know. I know. White supremacy."
"And complicit white people in denial, and complacent white people, like me?"
"Yes, like me. And see, aren’t these your own confused assumptions that there must have been good white people who would not stand for such a thing? Good white people like you who counter material violence with a gesture? Clearly, as thousands of black people were murdered, these good white people did nothing or next to nothing, to stop it. You hear that some did, some died trying to stop it, but who knows if this is just more white mythology to exculpate the white power structures and uphold mostly white liberal discourse formations? What are you doing to stop the murders now? Isn’t this discomfort, as DiAngelo argues, 'a disequilibrium in the habitus' of your home ownership, of your privileged garden reading? Is this making you uncomfortable? Is this guilt a sign of my white fragility? I think so? Probably?"
"But what about the racist, anti-black nutcracker thing, and the manifestation of murderous white hatred in Jones’ poem? What sanitized profanity led to this hateful nutcracker shit?"
Wanting to savor dark // thing those warm-cool mornings, I read the other poems slowly. And after reading from the collection, I returned to the books stacked beside me. After searching the index of Empire of Things for “racist objects” and “racist trade goods,” I came across the entry “Race," which led to my reading a scant but illuminating twenty pages spread throughout on the colonial and imperial history of racism in trade and world markets. In short, Trentman traces the English colonial and U.S. exploitation, bondage, federally supported theft and other forms of economic oppression of blacks from mercantilism to imperialism, empire and the early days of our current globalism. “As class barriers were softening,” Trentman writes of the prosperous era of exported Singer sewing machines and the Model-T Ford, “racial divides were hardening.” And after not finding anti-black artifacts, which Gates calls, I’d later read, "sambo art," in The History of America in 101 Objects, I searched for connections in an essay titled “Ku Klux Klan Robe and Hood,” which, in addition to showing the hideous and ridiculous regalia, accounted for how the klan (I refuse to capitalize their name) formed after Reconstruction (1865-1877) out of “angry planters and former Confederates," who felt “disempowered," and who sometimes “claimed they represented the ghosts of slain Confederates seeking revenge” (Kurin 361). During Jim Crow, this murderous, cross-burning, costume-wearing, fear-mongering, white-terrorist community grew to five million members. In 1926, the klan marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., and the photograph included in The History of America in 101 Objects shows a birds-eye view of the shameful procession. Eventually, I went inside to retrieve my phone because, surely, there must be something online about racist objects. Henry Louis Gates’ essay “Should Blacks Collect Racist Memorabilia” answered my initial question:
"What kind of cretin would design, market and sell such a degrading object, and why?"
At the flea market, there are many hidden treasures (₪) —vintage comic books, a cast-iron pan with corn-shaped wells, that one green desk lamp everyone’s grandma has. And then there’s you, Smilin’ Sam From Alabam’, a disembodied black head, skin an ebony mirror (∞) , wide-nosed, open-mouthed, big pink tongue awaiting a peanut’s yielding shell. I wonder if the rope around your neck is for storage, or, if even you, ceramic and glossy like a preacher, must be strung up from a tree (α) . If your flapping tongue and big eyes are not markers of your happiness, your singing slackmouth, but the startled result of another night in dark Alabama, illuminated by the stars ( ҈ ) , white and pointy as hoods made of sheets ( Ω ).
₪ : In the introduction to AGNI 79, editor Sven Birkerts reflects on how a group of photos can hold an era’s zeitgeist, which he sees as ghosting forward to us when we view past artifacts; and these objects, he says, bring with them “palpable collective feelings," which were “expressed in a thousand different ways, from art to public demonstration to barroom conversation, finally conferring a kind of atmospheric identity up a particular period." In his essay “Should Blacks Collect Racist Memorabilia?” Henry Louis Gates, Jr. explains, “By the 1890s—precisely when Jim Crow was hardening as the law of the land—one of the most popular forms of these [grotesque artifacts] was the widespread distribution of extremely demeaning and negative images of African Americans [in the form of multi-color depictions of blacks in print advertisements].” Jones’ phrasing “hidden treasures” groups “Smilin’ Sam From Alabam” in with the other, more innocuous junk items, as if it belonged there among the harmless household goods, because it does. It does belong because racist items such as these were commonplace. What Gates terms "sambo art" was mass-produced in tandem with “the astonishingly wide distribution of a massive mountain of negative Sambo images, which were intended to naturalize the image of the black person as sub-human and in doing so justify and subliminally reinforce the perverted logic of the separate and unequal system of Jim Crow itself." Later in the essay, when considering the role of sambo art in reinforcing the status quo, which always circulates the zeitgeist’s cold, blue, fearful blood throughout the white collective consciousness, Gates writes, “So popular were they with the public, so widespread was their consumption, that virtually anywhere a white person saw an image of an African American they saw one of these stereotypes of a sub-human, deracinated beast-like being, like a visual mantra reinforcing the negativity of difference.”
∞ : Jones suggests the glossy surface of this sambo figure as “an ebony mirror” of anti-black racists’ need to distort the physical reality and humanity of black faces. Even as Jones resists seeing herself here, she describes the object’s stereotyping imagery to connect the dehumanizing impulse to the thousands of lynch mobs it inspired. As Gates writes, “when a white person confronted an actual black human being, he or she was ‘an already read text,’ to use Barbara Johnson’s brilliant definition of a stereotype in her book, A World of Difference. It didn’t matter what the individual black man or woman said and did, because negative images of them in the popular imagination already existed.”
α : Between 1882 and 1920, more than 3,000 black people were executed by klansmen (I refuse to capitalize this word) and white mobs (History of America in 101 Objects). “I wonder…if even you, ceramic and glossy like a preacher, must be strung up by a tree.” Here Jones uses the imperative “must be” to connect the degrading but almost cartoonish image to the real violence. She sees each as links in the chain of deadly anti-black logic that would inculcate the message throughout the South and Midwest that black people were subhuman and therefore needed to be subordinate to white people. Gates writes, “the fears and anxieties of black people from within the white collective unconscious were projected onto a plethora of quotidian, everyday, ordinary consumer objects.” For example, a “sub-genre of lynching postcards also became popular, especially “The Dogwood Tree,” depicting five black bodies hanging from one tree in Sabine County, Texas on June 22, 1908. One accompanying caption says: “In the Sunny South, the Land of the Free, / Let the WHITE SUPREME forever be. / Let this a warning to all negroes be, / Or they’ll suffer the fate of the DOGWOOD TREE.”
҈ : Jones' image of a starry Alabama night sky sets up an enormous metaphor and allusion, each of which dovetails the image of American flag and the hoods of klansmen, perhaps seen from above. The klan propagated “one hundred percent Americanism” in the 1920s, and its agenda was anti-immigrant, as were other xenophobic and racist discourses across the states, as Eastern Europeans came to the U.S. in search of homes and factory jobs. This nationalism generally appealed to both Southerners and Northerners, but the anti-immigrant rhetoric appealed more to bigots in the North and Midwest (History of America in 101 Objects).
Ω : In a shameful photograph of the KKK marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in 1926, reproduced in History of America in 101 Objects, the pointy hoods made of sheets look like the starry menace of Jones’ Alabama night descending on the nation’s capital. Perhaps this street has always been pricked and stabbed by white oppression. No doubt the menace has often been, regardless of these cowards in hoods, less disguised.
- Marcus Myers