Thursday, June 30, 2011

Tyehimba Jess & Treasure Williams on Anti-Black Racism as Ugly Envy

Earlier today, I was mentioning the folk consciousness in poems by Tyehimba Jess and Treasure Williams, but it's also worth mentioning that both of them do quite a bit to take on that tremendous force known as anti-black racism. There are, no doubt, quite a few contemporary poets who deal with race in some form or another.

But given that Tyehimba and Treasure deal with the lives and experiences of Leadbelly and Fannie Lou Hamer, the poets are inclined to deal with some of the more brutal features of racism.

Early on in one of the poems in Tyehimba's book, a white character, Mr. Haney, tells a young Leadbelly, that "nigger, someday i’m gonna kill you."

Among other things, Haney hated that a young black boy could accomplish the feat of "undressing music from its wooden clothes." After hearing the slur and threat from Haney, Leadbelly considers to himself that "it was there, alone, / in the dark, darkness of me / that i first learned the ways / of pure white envy."

In the opening of one of her untitled poems, Treasure writes in the voice of Fannie Lou Hamer that "poison put in my daddy’s trough killd / our cow dead as a preachr in / memphs. murdrd our mule with paris green / envy ugly as 3 lynchd boys."

For a family of sharecroppers living in poverty, the death of their cow had to be a tremendous loss. In four short lines, Treasure links and leaps from one loss to other, more monumental losses, including King's assassination in Memphis and the murder of 3 civil rights workers in Mississippi. The poisoning of the Hamer family's livestock by a white neighbor occurred in the late 1920s or early 1930s when Fannie Lou Hamer was a little girl, King's assassination in 1968, and the lynching of the civil rights workers in 1964, and thus reveals that Treasure connects the time between the various incidents in order to highlight the pervasive and long-running occurrences of anti-black racism.   

Or, the mixing of dates could suggest that the mistreatment of Hamer's family was a precursor of even worse things to come.

Notably, Treasure and Tyehimba use the word "envy" as a likely source of white aggression toward black folks. Not simply hate, but envy--a word, in this context at least, that carries some really sinister implications and consequences.

Tyehimba's reference to "pure white envy" and Treasure's point about the ugliness of the envy accentuate the troubling nature of the emotion and how it dictates what can and did happen to African Americans. The poets write from the first-person perspectives of Leadbelly and Hamer, so they end up bearing (and baring) witness to experiences with anti-black racism.

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