218 The Tradition

Jessica Chretien

This August, the African American poet Jericho Brown gave a “lecture” at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont–a “conference” in a relatively rural area, where 220 writers spend 10 days with each other. I first listened to this talk a few days after it was given, because Liz Ahl knew someone who was at the conference who had raved about how great it was, so she posted the talk too–and then I listened. The conference had uploaded an audio recording of this talk; this talk spread through Twitter and other social media; this talk was available to me and so many other people because of the technology that went into recording and posting it, as well as the platforms that allowed people who knew each other to share it.
I call this recording a “lecture,” or a “talk,” because that is what it’s labeled as on the recording page; because that’s the easiest thing to classify it as, though it feels like more–feels like a poem itself, or something else altogether. I did not read the words of this text, nor did the people who originally heard it. This talk was spoken–and it’s for this reason that it makes me think about how we question what counts as a “text” in American literature (or just generally)–questions about whether oral traditions and stories by indigenous people count as “literature,” or the ones of black slaves, or even just important speeches. When I think of this talk by Brown, titled “Faith in the Now: Some Notes on Poetry and Immortality,” the word “oratory” comes to mind. Oratory–noun: a place of prayer. Oratory–noun: the art of speaking in public eloquently or effectively. Connoting religion, prayer, church, community, audience, speech, and persuasiveness (or rhetoric), this association is quite relevant, given the themes he deals with below.
In this talk, Brown deals with many of the themes we’ve been looking at in this course. In the first of three sections of his talk, called “More On Immortality,” he discusses the relationship between religion, joy, slavery, resilience, and the reasons that certain people move towards certain forms of “resilience.” In all of these themes we get as sense of them as tradition, as something handed down, but Jericho Brown further comments on this notion of tradition by often interlacing his talk with singing–singing what he calls “some of our earliest American literature–the negro spiritual.” This serves to emphasize not only the themes of his talk generally, but calls back to the way in which this talk is spoken, not a text–how it draws on, adapts, AND re-articulates the American literary tradition of black slaves oratory practices:
In the church where I was raised, adults made a sharp distinction between joy and happiness. Happiness felt good, but it was temporary; and because it was temporary, there was something about it not to be trusted . . . Joy, on the other hand, was a deeper, and more long-lasting feeling; other than God, joy had no traceable root, because it made no logical sense. Supposedly, you could loose your entirely family in a house fire and still have joy; you could wonder whether the next meal would materialize, but still feel joy . . . Joy, as it was explained to me, was a spiritual thing.
(singing) This joy I have, the world didn’t give it to me; this joy I have, the world didn’t give it to me. The world didn’t give it, the world can’t take it away.
It seemed quite convenient that the people of that church had this particular conception of joy: we were black, southern, and working class, or out of work; a vast majority of us were descendants of slaves, who, in one of their several improvisational tactics for survival, had decided that the riches that awaited them in heaven, made the attainment of comfort on Earth seem silly.
With the opening, Brown explicitly discusses a major theme running through so many of our discussions: the role that religion played in the lives of slaves and of oppressed people in general, even years later–with this he comments not only on how the religious traditions handed down by oppressed people work to obscure their oppression, but also on the relationship that dreams, imagination, and immortality all have to do with oppression, “resilience,” survival. Again, Brown interrupts his narrative to sing:
Keep so busy praisin’ my Jesus, ain’t got time to die. When I’m helpin’ the sick, I’m praisin’ my Jesus, ’cause it takes all of my time, all of my time to praise him. Keep so busy working for the kingdom; when I’m feedin’ the poor, I’m workin’ for the kingdom; keep so busy servin’ my master, when I’m givin’ my all, I’m servin’ my master, ain’t got time to die.
By singing these lyrics, this song, this literature, Brown very poignantly goes further, drawing together how religion, immortality, AND obedience and labor connect to one another. Like our discussions in class about Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, this song portrays/ deals with the idea of obedience to slave owners being related to obedience and reverence for Jesus; of carrying out dynamics of slavery as carrying out the will of God. But Brown’s interest is also in the way that slaves, their oppressed descendants, and his family, focus not on their current, mortal life, but instead on the proposed ideal life that awaits them in Heaven; Brown tries to get at the way that a desire for immortality functions as a way to cope with the harsh realities of oppression in life. Further, the major theme underlying both of these themes is that of busy-ness: whether the busy-ness of (slave) labor or of “praising Jesus”–both examples of serving and carrying out the interests of other people/ parties/ gods–these preoccupations work to help maintain dynamics of power and oppression and impede liberation.
Acknowledging the oppressive dynamics of such “resilience,” but also the need for any kind of resilience at all, Brown goes on to wonder about the importance of balancing joy-despite/ joy-as-survival, with acknowledging, inhabiting, expressing the flip side that accompanies this joy: the anger and sadness–the dual and double-sided life in which oppressed people must navigate their survival while striving for liberation:
I know that how we handle an adverse situation, is key to overcoming the adversity. At the same time, though, I know that we cannot truly understand and make use of an emotion, if we do not allow ourselves to fully feel and find an outlet for that emotion. To this day, I worry about how much of the rage I sublimated in my childhood lingers; is there time I spent trying to access joy, when I should have been wailing or, at least, punching a pillow?
All the while entwining his talk with the songs he has learned in his childhood and through his church, Brown quite seriously questions the function of the traditions handed down to him as he contemplates the ways that he both draws on and reshapes these traditions:
(singing) I got shoes you got shoes all of God’s children’s got shoes. When I get to heaven gonna put on my shoes, I’m gonna walk all over God’s heaven (heaven) heaven (heaven). Everybody talkin’ bout heaven ain’t a goin’ there heaven (heaven) heaven (heaven) I’m gonna walk all over God’s heaven.
Yes, these lyrics have in common the resilience of a people I love, but they also show you why these people need this particular brand of resilience . . . Wherever they live, does not feel like home, so Heaven must be more like home, and they have to understand Jesus’s silence in the midst of torment, as a conduit and example for their own existence and survival . . . So, one route for the need for immortality, comes from imagining a world where we live better, because we know this world will not allow us our lives. The immortal life is quite preferable to those who are kept from thriving during their mortal life. I don’t want to live that way; I don’t want my poetry to privilege a life I can’t experience when I know real life should be available to me and everyone else.
At this point, Brown explicitly connects his practice of writing with the traditons he has been handed; both the negro spirituals and the poems he write are stories–he contemplates the stories the spirituals tell, and the stories that he himself wants to tell, want to l i v e–ultimately, it seems as though he rejects these stories and these ways of living. And yet, after some time, Brown returns to the similarity of these traditions of story telling:
. . . But somehow in the act of writing, the tree, the shoestring, the molestation, the mother, the beating, the burial, and the music, all become the same–each item of one’s life, from experience or from imagination, merges; anything can become the material we use to make the gorgeous and enduring thing.
The only joy I have had in writing about domestic violence is the opportunity to re-envision and reform memories that otherwise leave me inoperable and in tears. Writing the poem is how we face the terror while working to separate ourselves from that same terror.
With this connection, Brown acknowledges the similar function that each version of this tradition works towards in the end: that resilience, that coping. Brown suggests that his poem writing does more than separate from the terror, it faces it; yet, still, he admits that so much of the desire for this writing lies in the desire for and ability to engage in a process of re-imagining, of rewriting, that is in many ways not the full engagement with the “real world” that he implies is the opposite of dreaming of religious immortality. He at once critiques his own desire to separate himself from these religious practices (and the “escapism” that accompanies them), while also expressing a kind of comfort at the precise function of his writing:
I’m sad to say, though, that I don’t know if poetry or any other medium, allows to us to erase or rewrite history exactly. I can say that the work of so many poets I love is all about highlighting some overlooked perspective from history.
At this point, Brown reads Mark Doty’s poem called Charlie Howard’s Descent aloud–a poem dealing with the murder of a queer boy–and remarks on the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of poetry in creating resilience, in creating change, in striving for liberation:
The last five lines of this poem see Howard’s murder written into a kind of resurrection. But I think our emotions respond to this most honestly because we know that resurrection does not actually happen–Howard is indeed dead; and dead because he made the mistake of existing.
Doty tells us what Doty wishes, not what is. The emotional reaction the reader experiences comes from the fact that Doty, no matter how extraordinary his imagination, no matter how elegant his lines and line breaks, cannot raise the boy from the dead.
I’m not saying we don’t gain anything. I’m only saying we don’t get to live in the world Doty wishes we inhabited, but–he does get to make plain what the world he desires is like, and allows us to contrast it to the dangers of the one in which small town queer people get thrown into rivers.
The poem itself mirrors the life of the believer, mirrors the process of prayer, of having a conversation with the supernatural. For instance: line breaks have everything to do with doubt; lines make it so that poetry is inherently infused with doubt–at the moment of a line break, even if it’s for a millisecond, you’re thrust into doubt, you’re thrust into a place where you’re not certain what just happened, or what’s going to happen, only faith that the next line will land us on solid ground is what keeps us breathing.
Halfway through his talk, Brown meditates on just how deeply the act of writing poetry connects to the traditions at work in the complex history of American literature created by black slaves and their descendants. This meditation is at once literary, personal, familial, historical, political, and existential; speaking later in the talk about the decision he has recently made to connect with his mother again, he says :
Whether or not I believe I’ll see dead family members in Heaven, or in Hell, doesn’t matter really–I work to revise traditions, I take responsibility for my own joy, and what fascinates me is that, given first Thessalonians 4:13-18–I, Jericho Brown, of reprobate mind and joyously sinful body am considering a new thought. I am thinking that no matter how dark the past had been between me and my mother, I’d rather talk to her about nothing important now, then worry about whether my belief can insure me an audience with her after we’re gone.
By investigating literary and familial traditions and their intersection with oppression, Brown explores in a meta way the differences and similarities between, the benefits and draw backs of, and the ways of thinking and rethinking the American literary traditions of oppressed people in the past, and of himself now. Not only does he comment on these connections, he also enacts them with the talk that he gives–he offers a form of American literature that, like “some of our earliest American literature–the negro spiritual[s],” is delivered orally, effectively, to a community of writers–this enactment was recorded and posted and because of this, it allows me to hear how the way that he talks mirrors the church environments he speaks about–the audience is heard laughing, clapping, making various noises in response to his oratory, the room he speaks becomes itself the other kind of oratory.
While there is so much more about this talk that is relevant (critiquing, drawing on, rearticulating Whitman in Song of Myself!), I don’t have the time to go into it all. But perhaps what I have thought about the most is how strange it is to have talked so much about this text being an audio recording, while using text to quote it–it’s pretty uncanny, honestly. All I can say is–give it a listen yourself.


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The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature: A PSU-Based Project Copyright © 2016 by Jessica Chretien is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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