Poetry Sunday: “Clea’s Side of the Story,” by Roxane Beth Johnson

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

February is Black History month, and today’s poem offers a part of the history widely ignored or sanitized in my generation’s schoolbooks: the enslavement of African Americans in this country in the 1700s and 1800s. “Clea’s Side of the Story” is from Black Crow Dress, a powerful neo-slave narrative that probes the origins of psychological and social oppression of black Americans during America’s most shameful chapter. The poems are tender, fierce, authentic, and sometimes nearly unbearable to read, but that we do read them is essential, now more than ever.

The slave narrative is a literary subgenre of fiction consisting of written accounts of Africans enslaved during the 18th and 19th centuries in Great Britain and its colonies, including the United States, Canada, and Caribbean nations. Slave narratives typically recount the life of a fugitive or former slave, either written or orally related personally by that person. One best-selling slave narrative was Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery. Most 19th-century American slave narratives were written by African Americans, but some were written in Arabic by African-born Muslims and some by white American sailors taken captive by North African pirates. Slave narratives telling the stories of white settlers kidnapped and raised by Native Americans were very popular for a time. An important literary tradition, slave narratives have influenced many subsequent works of fiction and memoir. Uncle Tom’s Cabin borrowed incidents and characters from such narratives, and Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom tells the story of the post-Civil War struggle for freedom and independence set against Northern racism. Modern African-American autobiographies indebted to slave narratives include Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945), The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), Ernest J. Gaines’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987). We see their influence in contemporary films like Django, Unchained, and 12 Years a Slave. These works probe the origins of psychological and social oppression and offer a critique of the meaning of freedom for 20th-century African Americans. [From “Slave Narratives: American Literature” by William L. Andrews.]

In Black Crow Dress, Johnson gives dramatic poetic voice to the slave narrative in the context of American institutional slavery, and she does it in poems that tell a story so complex, rich, tragic, and authentic that one is surprised to discover the characters are not real, historical figures. The narrative is braided, nonlinear, and told from at least nine points of view, each one “hungry for a voice & music to re-bloom.” One perspective is the author’s, haunted by ghosts and compelled to bear witness. Another is the oppressor’s, in persona poems spoken by Tobias Finch, Mistress Finch, and their daughter Prudence. But most of the book is told in the voices of slaves: Clea, Caroline, and Zebedee, a Greek chorus of field workers, as well as two unnamed slaves described as “fugitive” and an “African Who Jumped Ship.” Johnson borrows techniques from fiction to give her book the believable characters, compelling plot, and suspense of a brilliantly written novel, but she does it in poems that are beautiful with music and image and terrible with human suffering. Use of a fractured narrative is a postmodern literary technique, as are the sentence fragments seen in the poem above, and the breaking of the third wall in another poem (“Zebedee at the New Plantation”), in which a character directly addresses the speaker in order to criticize the way she presumes to portray him. Johnson makes extremely effective use of such techniques to reinvent the slave narrative in poems that blur past and present and expose the continuing psychological effects of historic oppression.

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