Thursday, November 23, 2006

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED # 28: The Stuff of Stuffing

SO, I ARRIVED AT THE DEKALB COUNTY JAIL's back entrance and pressed the buzzer.

"Do you have any of the items posted on the sign to your right?" a voice over the intercom said.

Suddenly, I couldn't read. A man I recognized from television as Sheriff Thomas Brown appeared next to me and, with his index finger, underlined each red-lettered item on the sign.

Cell phones.

Then, I realized that I'd ended a call just before I pressed the buzzer. Clearly, the voice over the intercom must have seen me talking on my cell phone over the security camera. Surely, it is what prompted her to ask the question.

There are few things more annoying than a person asking you a question they already have the answer to. And here, with the sherriff standing next to me.

"Yes, I have a cell phone."

"I'll need you to secure your cell phone before you enter," she said.

Secure? Like, in my pocket?
Rather than be a wise a$$, I assumed she meant that she wanted me to leave it outside.

"Um, okay. I'm going to put it in my car," I said. (I was coming to serve - not be served. I wasn't trying to spend the night in the DeKalb County Jail.)

I returned and rang the guard again.

"Did you secure your cell phone, sir?"

"Yes," I said.

She buzzed me into the barbed wired gate, and I walked up the ramp to the back entrance to the jail where I - without a strip search, without a pat down, without so much a waved wand - signed in and, within 3 minutes, was in a hairnet and apron ready to begin my shift for goal #28: Volunteer for Hosea Feed the Hungry.


Hosea Williams was one of the most outspoken leaders of the Civil Rights movement. During the 1965 march on Selma, he was beaten to the point of unconsciousness. This proved perhaps his most remarkable quality: his hard-headedness.

His motto was "Unbought and unbossed." In fact, Martin Luther King once called him, "My wild man, my Castro." Lacking the tact or diplomacy of King, Joseph Lowery, and Ralph Abernathy, Hosea never really got the national attention of the others. But Hosea's mission was primarily to carry on what King considered the second phase of the Civil Rights movement, which King began just before his assassination in 1968: the Poor People's Campaign.

One of Hosea's greatest accomplishments in this effort was Hosea Feed the Hungry & Homeless which offers hot meals, haircuts, and clothing for the needy in Atlanta each Thanksgiving and Christmas. Also providing job training and rent and utility assistance, today, the program serves over 55,000 men, women, and children each year.

I'd never seen so much bread in my life: White bread. Brown bread. Publix bread. Colonial bread. Bread ends. Bread middles. Bread stacked 8 ft. high. Bread from wall to wall. Bread for rooms and rooms.

I was assigned to a group of a dozen or so volunteers for the 6 - 9 p.m. shift, whose duty was to tear bread for stuffing for the next day's Thanksgiving dinner. In two lines of chairs, we faced each other: elderly, young; Black, Asian, White; each leaned over a 30-gallon bag waiting to be filled.

19 And he commanded the multitude to sit down on the grass, and took the five loaves, and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed, and brake, and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude.

20 And they did all eat, and were filled: and they took up of the fragments that remained twelve baskets full.

21 And they that had eaten were about five thousand men, beside women and children.

Like clockwork, we took loaves, opened them, and tore and tore and tore the bread; four slices at a time, five slices at a time; into fives into tens. And over poorly-rendered Christmas carols - What did the true love give on the 12th day? - and out-of-tune TV jingles, we each filled the bags with pieces of bread, with the stuff of stuffing, with pieces of our lives.

There was something very therapeutic about all of this tearing and joining and joining and tearing. In other halls and other rooms in the basement of this jail, some cleaned turkeys, others chopped onions, others emptied vats of green beans.

How humbling it was to play such a small part in a project that would, the next day, serve a multitude of 5,000 - threefold. Fifteen thousand men, women, and children all made possible by thousands of volunteers giving the greatest donation of all: Time.

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED #28: Volunteer for Hosea Feed the Hungry.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

REVIEW: Dolores Kendrick's The Women of Plums: Poems in the Voices of Slave Women (William Morrow Company, Inc. 1989)

In his 1979 critical collection, From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative, Robert B. Stepto posits, "The strident, moral voice of the former slave recounting, exposing, appealing, apostrophizing, and above all remembering his ordeal in bondage is the single most impressive feature of the slave narrative." But what of a collection of poems based on slave narratives? Is the remembering enough? And if it is not enough, what elevates this remembrance to poetry? This is the challenge faced by former Washington, D.C., poet laureate, Dolores Kendrick’s award-winning 1989 collection, The Women of Plums: Poems in the Voices of Slave Women.

The Women of Plums is based on actual interviews of female slaves conducted by the Federal Writers’ Project. Ambitious in scope, these poems, mostly dramatic monologues written in the voices of slave women, humanize the horrors of slavery. In "Sophie, Climbing the Stairs," a slave braves the threat of flogging to learn how to read. In "Leah: in Freedom" a runaway slave refuses to let her spirit be broken despite repeated recapture. In "Ndzeli in Passage," a slave’s sister chooses death by drowning during the Middle Passage over a life of enslavement in America.

While these situations are moving, the poems themselves, often, do not move. The lyrical execution of the dramatic scenes is largely uneven.

True, there are moments when Kendrick’s technique dazzles. Alliterative and assonant, "Liza Lily in Silks" turns and turns and turns, reveling in its own sounds:

Oh, this is a quiet dress.
Light. Airy.
I can take off soft

in it anytime I please
if only to tease
Edam. Get him away

from the horror of his hope
That traps him in that
House that both of us hate.

I wait…

Written in the form of a shopping list, "To Market, to Market" chills the reader with its utter inhumanity:
one Spinning Wheel
one Dresser Mirror
one nigger wench & child

The ballad form beautifully amplifies content in the tragic "The Ballad of Bethany Veney" where:
...when old Kibber came upon
us running brave and free,
he made John climb
(for the last time)
the way away from me
  Good God! the way from me.

With its crisp monosyllablics, the images in "Julia Carrying Water" sing with the clarity of Lucille Clifton:

though I walk through
briars and bristles

up hills and over
stony paths

in rooms brightly dark
with watery movin’

But in other places within the collection, the language too often dulls into what reads like transcriptions arbitrarily broken into lines, as in these prosaic passages from "A Slightly Colored Lady":

In slavery you had to be good or you’d
Make Marster mad and he’d sell you
Or beat you or both…

And you wouldn’t know ‘till ‘twas too late
‘bout Jonah who be sold ‘way from his family
And Lilliemae who stood on the auction-block

Or these lines from "Sidney, Looking for her Mother…":

And you detain me unlawfully. Do you understand the
papers, suh? Can you
read? No offense, suh. Oh, no! but the train for Austin be
here any
Minute and that be the place where I last heard my mother

Or still worse, these lines from "Jo Abandoned":

At least I think he could Though his feelin’s be slow
They usually firm and honorable Just wanted the best
Jack always wanted the best for himself I didn’t fit

Where is image? Where is metaphor? Where is music?

Ironically, the most lyrical language in The Women of Plums actually occurs before the title page in "Canticles of a Black Lady," the prelude to the collection. Hear the lovely music in "…Fly winds to sea-rocks and break/ a round of prayer upon their backs," "Their ripe dreams bitten into leave a sour sweetness in the membranes of the mouth," and "The women of plums are sweet and black./ Their flesh moist with tears of joy."

It begs the question whether the need for verisimilitude to the slave narrative transcriptions shackles Kendrick’s ability to lyrically deliver.

Dolores Kendrick does get credit for originality in content. Along with Rita Dove’s 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Thomas and Beulah, Kendrick’s The Women of Plums helped lay the foundation for the recent rash of book-length African-American verse based on historical figures including Natasha Trethewey's 2002 Bellocq's Ophelia, Quraysh Ali Lansana‘s 2004 collection, They Shall Run: Harriet Tubman Poems, and Tyehimba Jess‘ 2005 National Poetry Series winning Leadbelly.

As Stepto proposed was true of the slave narrative, The Women of Plums’ real strength is in its remembering and in its engagement of the "moral, strident voice." While some of the poems struggle on the page, they consistently cry out to be voiced. Thus, it is no surprise that Kendrick adapted the collection for the stage, where it won the New York New Playwrights Award in 1997.

Before The Women of Plums, never before had there been such an assemblage of voices of female slaves in verse. But poetry demands more than originality in content. It demands originality in technique. In this regard, the fruit of The Women of Plums is lyrically bittersweet.