Saturday, March 23, 2019

Black male bodies, Jericho Brown, and The Tradition

Artwork by: L. Ralphi Burgess

In his book The Tradition, Jericho Brown writes a multifaceted collection of works on black male bodies. Sure, he covers various other subjects as well. But what he's doing with representations of black male bodies is particularly noteworthy.

Over the last several years, spurred by some highly visible and publicized racially motivated and police brutality incidents, we've seen an increasing number of poets write about black people who were killed or died under awful circumstances. Trayvon Martin. John Crawford. Eric Garner. Sandra Bland. Mike Brown. And on and on. The Mike Brown killing remains particularly haunting because of how his dead body stayed on the street for so long -- a deeply troubling signal for the disregard of black people in this society.

In addition to individual poems, Resisting Arrest: Poems to Stretch the Sky (2016) edited by Tony Medina and Of Poetry and Protest: From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin (2016) edited by Philip Cushway and Michael Warr contain multiple works that address issues of harm done to black folks, with a specific focus on some of the high-profile tragedies.

Brown's title poem "The Tradition," a sonnet, closes with the lines: "Where the world ends, everything cut down / John Crawford. Eric Garner. Mike Brown." Here, we get a sense of the poet's clever use of language as he refers to three black males who were "cut down," and at the same time, he rhymes "down" and "Brown." There's a juxtaposition here too between the playfulness of rhyming and the seriousness of how terribly those guys were killed.

In another poem, Brown mentions Emmett Till -- a figure and destroyed body that remains a fixture in American poetry. Taken together, Brown's poems in the volume mentioning violence inflicted upon African Americans contributes to the large, growing domain of writings that address abuse and brutality. Yet, Brown takes additional steps.

Where many writers admirably address the mistreatment of African Americans, relatively few go to the lengths that Brown does in also celebrating black male bodies. He writes about the bodies of black male lovers. He writes of his own black male body. He discusses braiding his hair. He writes of bodies with HIV. He references viewing bus stops early in the morning all across the country as "all those black folks" -- men and women -- wait to go to work.

Listen: even if we removed his meditations on police violence, Jericho Brown would still have a substantial number of diverse works highlighting aspects of black bodies. In one poem, he writes that "Men roam shirtless as if none ever hurt me." In "Of My Fury," he writes of how a man he loves could die because of the color of "all his flawless skin." In his poem "Thighs and Ass," he writes that "Where I am thickest, I grew / Myself by squat and lunge."

Brown's black, queer, southern perspective and knowledge are integral to his perspectives and his representations of black male bodies throughout The Tradition. For him, black lives and black bodies matter, and they matter in his poetry well beyond the context of racist abuse. 

A Notebook on Jericho Brown

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