by Mara Jebsen
What has happened before can happen again– and so can what hasn’t.
— Bertolt Brecht
When I was in college, I wrote angry letters to the controversial and often political poet, Amiri Baraka. The letters were neither kept nor sent, but I remember what it was like to write them. I remember the yellow legal pads, crammed with inky scrawls.
In the old Mercer Street Books in the village, where I buy myself used plays and spy novels once a week, I spotted “Preface to A Twenty-Volume Suicide Note” heaped in the dusty Rare Books cabinet and bought it, for seventeen dollars and ninety-five cents. Opening the mildly aged volume, I had that strange feeling you get when you’re flooded with a whiff of more recent history. It is the sense that something was fresh and current in the time when your mother was younger than you are now. It has magic like moon-rocks because it's stylistically foreign, yet deeply known. In this case, so perfectly 1961, Village. A whole flavor of semi-bullshit, semi-real bohemia surrounds this little paperback. On the last page, Corinth books advertises Ginsberg’s Empty Mirror for a dollar twenty-five, and works by Kerouac and O’Hara for ninety-five cents. I remember as I thumb through it that Baraka wasn't yet Baraka; this book was written by a very young man. His name was Leroi Jones.
It is interesting to think about how and when you come across the seminal poems of your life. “And each night, I count the stars/and each night, I get the same number/ and when they will not come to be counted/I count the holes they leave”—These 28 words, in this order, have appeared, unbidden, at some of the most poignant moments of my life, arriving from beneath me like a wave, or seeming sometimes as if they'd never left; are more like an invisible walking companion whose steps match mine—company I will keep as long as memory holds.
Why was I angry? To remember properly, I have to contextualize those unsent letters with other unsent letters:
From Durham NC to Lome, Togo, 1997
I am taking another class in the Africana studies department. It kind of can’t believe this is happening/I am choosing this. Those tomes you and Kodjo lugged from Philadelphia to each of our houses in Lome always struck me as such a waste of time; so dry. The sex life of savages? Folktales from Cameroun? And now… They’re actually assigning me some of the same books. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. The Black Jacobins. And I’m into it. Will everything that bored me to tears when I was a kid come back and claim me? And would this be a happy or a sad thing?
I really, really love it here. But it is a strange place, haunted. Makes you want to write poems. Here is how I would describe Duke:
That place with its gothic architecture lit under floodlights at night like a stage; the whole of it a show. Magical-ghostly. At night black men came and planted. We’d wake in the morning to fully-grown beds of dusty miller, pansies, geraniums, azaeleas, rows and rows of sweet-smelling things I couldn’t name. At night black women cleaned the vomit from the bathrooms stalls and commons room, made us steaming trays of chicken and dumplings, macaroni and cheese; cabbage stewed down in butter to practically nothing; in the cranky mornings ladies in hairnets served up buttered grits, fat rashers of bacon and fluffy biscuits. One of them looks like Auntie Rogatthe.
I am hanging out mostly with these brilliant Asian and Latina girls. We are trying to figure out how American we are. We are trying to figure everything out. Poetry seems more and more interesting to me. Also, I met someone I really like. His name is x. I’ll tell you about it later
From Durham, NC to Lome, Togo 1999
In my black poetry class, I am the only white girl and I try not to feel silly. I have to tell you this thing that made me really confused. My professor is a light-skinned black poet. He's laughing all the time, like he knows some joke we don't. This week he introduced us to Amiri Baraka. I was so moved by the poems and came in to class with my head lit up like a match. Then he told us this whole story about how Baraka used to be Leroi Jones, and he lived in New York with this Jewish woman named Hettie. And a kid. Or two kids, I don't remember. Anyway, they were being bohemians in the village until the day Malcolm X got shot–then, according to my professor, Jones changed his name to Baraka, and left his wife and kids. But the professor was grinning the whole time like as if he was winking. I couldn't understand it. I got really mad and I think I blushed or something. So there I am, the only white kid in the class, and I'm red. I don't know. I kept thinking about you and Papa, raising two interracial kids back in Lome and wondering if the whole 'tragic mullato' idea is real, if it applies to them. I hope not. I haven't been used to considering the lot of us in any tragic sense.
Also, The fraternity system here is really strong and X is rushing a black frat. He always wants to know about Togo–what it was like there, what is Africa with a capital A really like. I tell him stories about Togo, but maybe I romanticize. Or dramatize. I don’t seem him as much as I’d like. I’d like to join a sorority, but there are white sororities and black sororities, and neither feels right. Is this just what happens right now, or is this my whole life? Love to everybody,
From Lome, Togo to Washington, DC 2002
College was such a long time ago already! I miss everything, sweet tea, gardens. One of my aunts comes by. There is a story there, about HIV and. . .misinformation and poor medical systems that I don't even want to tell you. Anyway, things are better now, because the house is finally, after ten years, built, and there’s more than enough room for everybody. Its weird to think that my sisters and brothers will definitely go to college in America.
So I know you always want to know what it's like, and I’m no good with a camera, so:
This half- covered rooftop used to be a chalky toothpaste white. At night a fluorescent tube of light gives the walls a garishness, but objects have a strict, bald beauty. Only a few other houses have been built to three stories, so up here you have the sense of being slightly suspended over the surrounds. Birds get confused and swoop onto the patio. A palpably empty chair made of worn wood and canvas rustles sometimes in the breeze rising off the ocean, which is a wide violet mass visible a quarter of a mile away. Thin palm trees scraggily stand sentry by it. Two or three ships sometimes appear between them at sea, looming like black whales floating, sparely strung with lights. It is dangerous to look up. The stars are so clustered, close and bright that you can’t pick out constellations. It is a noisy galactic shower perpetually falling onto the skull.
If you stand at the edge of the patio and look down you’ll see the tin corrugated roofs patched with bricks and burlap spread out in haphazard pattern that obscures a natural order. Children walk quietly around the compound on the carefully swept sand. Laundry stiffens on lines, and someone is getting water from a well for a late wash. There’s a goat or two, and a chicken. One compound has electricity, and the television within it casts a green glow through an open door onto the nearby sand. It is terribly hot. A woman unbraids her hair by a kerosene lamp.
I hope you are liking law school. I’ll be back in America at the end of the summer. I plan to move to New York. (to be a poet!!!) Who moves to New York soon after 9-11, I don’t know. But it isn’t safe here, either. Like my stepfather says: “the life amidst danger is the real life.”
In 1996, the year I went to college and moved from Lome to Durham, there was so much I couldn’t help notice and much more I couldn’t make sense of. Even the landscapes of West Africa, and the South, seemed to superimpose on one another in my head. There was lots of open sky and the same stars overhead. There was the heat, the yams, the red dirt. The histories were different, but it was the same history.There were poor people. The difference as that there were a lot more white people. Some also very poor, but at school, mostly rich. . I was in love with my friend. My stepfather, I suddenly remembered, had a copy of Molefi Kete Asante’s Afrocentricity in his section of the library, which I had read, a knot in my stomach. In fact he had an entire collection of radical black texts. I was a bundle of nerves at the time, convinced that if history, that racial politics, that anybody’s sense of justice— if anybody talked about what had happened here–the rapes and thefts and indignities during and after this long-ago migration from the slave castles at Elmina to these Carolina haunted forests—then my parents would break up, and this boy would never like me. And so, when the teacher told me that story about the marriage that split over the assassination of Malcolm X, I thought I was angry, but I was scared.
Its funny to think of marriage itself as such a delicate thing, susceptible to plagues. I think of the Woody Allen movie, Husbands and Wives. Particularly, I imagine that unconventional marriages must feel susceptible to plague. On these coasts, the entire experiment of multiracial America comes home and gets worked out behind the front door. It was comforting to remember in those days, that an American woman and an African man–two scholars living in Togo in the '90's was not the same as an interracial artist couple living in the East Village in the “60's. But I saw a certain correspondence.
From Brooklyn, NY to Lome, Togo, 2009
Here's what I'm thinking: poets are a big chain of inheritances. Its like its our turn, our New York. There was a set of crazy poets running wild on these streets in the 60’s, and now, there’s us. Believe it or not, I met Amiri Baraka and his wife Amina in a restaurant, through some friends. Amina had her hair in the same kind of braid-round-the-head I had mine in, and we both had the natural white streak at the front. We sat across from each other and laughed about this. They were funny, relaxed– the type of people I would like to be some day. People I felt no need to ask touchy questions of. A different time, I met Hettie Jones, Baraka’s first wife, at an event, and she was equally vivid, and so kind to me, giving me advice on how to publish. So I was terribly embarrassed, underneath, for having taken the personal lives of my elders so personally. The truth is, I don’t know what happens behind closed doors.
Do you remember when V was 10, and we were vacationing in the family house upstate, and she announced at the dinner table: “Mommy’s side of the family is more lucky.” “Lucky,” we asked? “Yes. They have nicer things.”
Recently I saw a guy with blowsy brown hair, sitting on a street in the Village, holding a sign that said: “I’m too white to be this broke.” He was about 18.
When V said it, I thought it was clever. This guy. . .I guess one wishes, somewhere along the line, that he would have known enough history to know that a darker skin color and poverty are not a natural fact of the universe, but a correspondence born of history, circumstance. . .
Its so funny to think of both sisters in American colleges these days, knowing so much about what is to be African, learning how it is to be half-black in America. When V got into Duke, I had such crazy mixed feelings. And then there’s you. You’ve been in Togo over 20 years now. Do you think you’ll move back to America soon?
I’ve heard it said that it is because the stars are random that we are able to make stories about them. If they were evenly patterned like dots in a domino, we would not see the ways they correspond to shapes we find on earth. In each person’s education about race, there is such a lot of randomness that enters the equation. The basic ways in which we produce what we think is knowledge are worth looking at—
When an event occurs, like the killing of Malcolm X, the fault lines beneath what might be otherwise harmonious relationships reveal themselves. More recently, we think about Trayvon Martin, the sad life of Rodney King,and our sense of personal knowledge about racial crimes emerges. A few years after I graduated from Duke, there was the Lacrosse scandal. I had not known those boys, but I had known boys like that. They woke up early and went to class and did thier reading. They chewed tobacco. You'd catch them at night making a scratched grafitti on the study carrels that revealed things about how they felt about minorities and sorority girls that would make you wan to vomit. You didn' t know what to think about them, overall. You tried to imagine them raping someone, and were embarrassed at how easily your imagination went there. But these were not the same boys on trial.
I am interested, in the way that Joan Didion was interested after the Central Park Rape scandal, in the details not only of the particular crimes that make the news, but in the way that they get publicized and they way that publicized crimes obscure other crimes. I am thinking of O.J Simpson and Trayvon and Rodney King alltogether in a muddy mass. Black Americans tend to know a whole lot more about the history of crimes against thier men than their white counterparts. Many see what has happened before, and what is still happening, and can be forgiven for thinking it is happening again.
When there is a racially divisive event in this country, watching people respond seems to reveal little about the facts of the case at hand—which are often incomplete and heavily mediated by the journalistic process. The responses tell us more about the particular responders’ knowledge of how many cases of violence against black people they are well acquainted with. In the case of each responder it might behoove us to ask: how much does it hurt to think about the one you think is the innocent party? Does this innocent resemble your uncle or aunt? An algorithm could almost be made to account for the emotional investment one has in the agressor-who-is-actually-victim, and the number of times that pattern has been seen, or heard of, historically, by the responder. I am sometimes tempted to make a survey of my facebook friends–to see how many have been personally affected by the sheer number of cases of mistaken identity and judicial oversight that have put black men into coffins or jailcells, and how many are completely unaware on any such phenomenon.
Of course, as with the marriages of others, we do know what happens behind each closed door, or streetcorner, or frat-house in places where we, personally, do not happen to be standing. The entire system of the law asks citizens to make decisions they cannot accurately make. The entire system of the media seduces citizens into having opinions without enough information—historical or currently, factually relevant. What has happened before can happen again–and so can what hasn’t.
When we decide we know what has happened in a case, without studying either the history of racial violence in America, or the facts at hand, it is like going out to the stars on a cloudy night and believing that’s all there is. Like thinking you know what happened in the marriage between two people you never met. You simply do not have enough information to arrive at conclusions. You can count the stars, but not the holes they leave.