you have to face your excuse

Michael Dumanis: Do you think there’s something to the idea that form inherently functions differently for some writers because of race and background?

Jericho Brown: You know, the 18th-century poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” by Phillis Wheatley is I think her most famous and most quoted because it allows her to subvert discourse on race in a way that feels subversive even now. There’s a moment in that poem where she expresses gratitude for Christian missions to enslaved Africans, arguing that the reason Africa needs to be under the thumb of Europe and under the thumb of the white Americans is that when we get to Heaven, now that we have become Christian, everybody’s gonna get to be together. All the black people and all the white people are gonna hang out together. And there’s a way that no one white on Earth had really thought about that or would have wanted that at that time.

I think this idea that form functions differently is definitely the case for somebody like Gwendolyn Brooks, though not for somebody like Langston Hughes, which is why Hughes is interested in inventing a form, or taking something outside poetry that the folk are already using and making it into a form, as opposed to using a traditional form himself. But I do think that somebody like Brooks, and people like Countee Cullen and Claude McKay, 100% Claude McKay, are interested in what happens when you put the black body inside the sonnet. When I make formal the black body, it is still a black body and you will still be offended by its presence. But then you have to face your excuse. So there’s a way that you have to deal, as in the Phillis Wheatley poem, where the black body says, I’m enslaved because I’m a savage and you’re going to Christianize me. But then, once I tell you I’m a Christian and I’m going to Heaven with you and we’ll hang out there together, you then have to be faced with your excuse. You’ve made an excuse for your evil, and now you’re going to have to be faced with it, because here’s my subject-verb agreement, here’s my rhyme, here is me knowing what a pentameter line is. So, if your excuse was that I was illiterate, if your excuse was, as Thomas Jefferson says, that there’s no poetry among black people, then you have to be faced with the fact that, actually, you’re just a hater. I think there’s something much more automatically and subconsciously political going on when black people write in a form that has to do with participating in a larger culture outside, and I shouldn’t say larger, but participating with the culture that black culture circulates through and dwells within.
- Jericho Brown, in conversation with Michael Dumanis over at The Bennington Review. You can read the whole thing here.

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