Sunday, November 8, 2015
10 years reading Leadbelly, Pt. 5: Eady, Jess, and Matejka
This book -- Leadbelly -- is the result of a determined and talented poet taking on multiple personas. The central persona or character was this folk musician with the reputation of being a bad man -- the kind of figure that has drawn my attention over the last few years.
Of the many bad men who appear in contemporary African American poetry, I've been especially intrigued by the depictions presented in Cornelius Eady's Brutal Imagination (2001), Tyehimba Jess's Leadbelly (2005), and Adrian Matejka's The Big Smoke (2013). Eady concentrates on the fictitious black man that Susan Smith invented as the culprit who kidnapped her children. Jess concentrates Huddie Ledbetter, an ex-convict who's tough and hard living earned him the name Leadbelly, and Matejka's book focuses on the man with the "unforgivable blackness," Jack Johnson.
Although they cover different concerns, Eady's, Jess's, and Matejka's books speak to each other in various ways. From one perspective, their black men protagonists could be read as troublemakers, but the extents to which their experiences expose racial inequality and discrimination are what really make them bad men. Like their spiritual ancestors, Shine and Stagolee, the central figures in Brutal Imagination, Leadbelly, and The Big Smoke prompt us to consider how bad black men disrupt white supremacy.
But in addition to thinking about the significance of leading characters and content in poetry volumes, I've also been giving some thought to matters of design.
• 10 years reading Leadbelly, Pt. 6: Jess, Shockley, and Lewis
• A crown of blog entries for Leadbelly: project overview
• 10 years reading Leadbelly, Pt. 4: Those multiple voices