This week’s poem contains a legacy.
Like a story told and retold on families’ front porches, this Poetry Moment features author Toi Derricotte reading a poem that changed her life, “Southern Road” by Sterling Allen Brown.
With colloquial rhymes and dialect, the poem’s haunting rhythms echo the stories and songs of chain gangs. Conceived during the Civil War to provide free labor, chain gangs proliferated in the South until the 1950s, when they were largely phased out in most of the nation. The practice lingered in Georgia and North Carolina until the 1970s, and was resurrected in the 1990s “tough on crime” era.
Chain gangs became part of American culture, with Nina Simone and Sam Cooke writing songs about the lines of prisoners often seen along Southern roads.
Prisoners, many of whom were Black and most of whom were convicted of minor crimes, were shackled together at the ankles to provide states free labor. They broke rocks, built the nation’s roads and highways, dug holes. Treated cruelly, prisoners were sometimes kept in cages, and usually fed little and beaten liberally. For photos and history of the chain gang, see this fascinating and horrifying history project by the University of North Carolina Greensboro.
Brown’s poem called forth the chain gang’s speech and song in a way that American readers had never seen. Poet Derricotte explained that besides Langston Hughes, she read no works by Black writers in grade school, in high school, or even in college. When she started reading Brown’s poems, “they blew my mind.” In this Poetry Moment, Derricotte reads only the last three stanzas of Brown’s iconic poem.
Brown was born on the campus of Howard University in Washington, D.C., attended Harvard, then returned to Howard to teach for more than 40 years until he retired in 1969. Brown, whose father was born into slavery and became a prominent minister and professor at Howard, became a bridge between the Harlem Renaissance and contemporary Black poets like Derricotte.
A 2019 finalist for the National Book Award for Poetry, Derricotte visited HoCoPoLitSo in November 2012 to read her own poetry and talk about the legacy of Lucille Clifton, our longtime artistic advisor and the nation’s beloved, award-winning poet. Before she read for our audience, Derricotte filmed an interview about her work with E. Ethelbert Miller, poet and activist from D.C. who knew Brown well. Miller asked her to read some poetry that inspired her. Derricotte chose a Sylvia Plath poem, and this work by Brown.
Derricotte has her own legacy to pass on. She and poet Cornelius Eady formed Cave Canem, a retreat and foundation to support and host African American poets. Cave Canem, which translates from Latin as “Beware the Dog,” was named after the mosaic of the protective dog at the entrance to the House of the Tragic Poet, preserved in Pompeii (see image below). Founded in 1996 to nurture Black poets, Cave Canem has supported thousands of Black poets with workshops, prizes, and readings. Fellows of the program have published more than 250 books.
Try one of their books, listen to “Southern Road” here, pick up The Collected Poems of Sterling Brown, read some of Derricotte’s confessional and personal work. Then sit on the porch with your family and tell these stories.
— Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer of The Writing Life
Sterling Brown Photo: By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42296826