In Columbia, Missouri, where I now live, I can feel its spirit in the white columned buildings and along the currents of the Missouri River. It is reflected in the shadows cast by white bark Sycamores, and it loiters on the Old Stewart Road Bridge—a man who worked as a janitor at the University of Missouri was lynched there in 1923, sentenced to death but never tried or convicted. It’s at the backdoor of the Missouri Theatre.
I was not born in the South but I've known the spirit of inequality all my life. I was born in Clifton, New Jersey, and have lived most of my life in Northern cities: Newark, Philadelphia, and New York City. I write this essay from the sitting room of a Bed N’ Breakfast in Montpellier, Vermont, where on the wall hangs a picture of Ulysses S. Grant. A week ago I was in New York with my granddaughter. In front of the American Museum of Natural History we found a bronze sculpture of Theodore Roosevelt sitting on his horse—on his left stands an Indigenous American, to his right, an African. Sadly, wherever I travel, I find reminders of our imbalance. Not just in America. This summer I traveled to Nantes, France, which served as a major port for the Transatlantic Slave Trade during the eighteenth century. Standing near that river chilled me from within and left me trembling.
However, the sculpture of Roosevelt accompanied by the Indigenous American and enslaved African says something else to me: we helped make America—we are not its victims. We are its heroes. Even by the river in Nantes, I didn’t just feel sorrow. I felt glory. I felt glory and gratitude for our miraculous survival. This summer, when I left France to continue living in the South, I left with a deeper knowledge that people of African descent have been a creative force throughout the world.
Recently, I discovered the work of Ann Plato, a seemingly minor nineteenth-century poet who is credited with being the first African-American woman to have published a book of essays. Plato wrote lyric and elegiac verse. On their surface, most of her poems are void of racial markers, yet the content reflects concern for the empowerment of black people. Studying Plato’s work helped me realize the intricate and integral contribution of literature written by people of African descent in the early development of American literature. Plato’s Essays: Including Biographies and Miscellaneous Pieces, in Prose andPoetry didn’t become available until 1988 when, as the result of the recovery work of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and the Schomburg, New York, library staff, a thirty-one-volume collection of nineteenth-century African-American women’s literature, including Plato’s Essays, was published.
Once I knew about this collection, I began to question what else had been left out of the record—and therefore also the definition of what is American literature. I became inspired to write poems that assumed a different beginning—a beginning not defined by what we had lost, but by what we had created.
I used to feel handicapped as a writer because I believed English was my second language, that I had forgotten my first. How could I write in a language that represents enslavement and colonization? However, by reading the work of nineteenth-century black women writers, Ann Plato in particular, I realized, in the words of Langston Hughes, “I, too, sing America.” American literature, from the beginning, was the product of African-American creative writing as much as anyone else. The way I use language is a reflection of my African heritage and my many experiences—individual and collective, remembered and imagined. Maybe I’m not a poet of the new South. But I now live here. And I’ve certainly developed a new attitude about the formation of the American canon. We did not lose our tongues.
Return to the Poetry in Place symposium.