Pushcart 2014: Kwame Dawes, “The Separation/Retention” (Poetry) from Hunger Mountain, Winter 2012

Juba Scene from Wilson's "Joe Turner's Come and Gone"

Juba Scene from Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”

It should be as African as possible…
August Wilson
How African can it possibly be to dance
to the flattened palms on a wooden table,
to be belly full of fried chicken and sweet
potatoes, to be blood dizzy with sugared
tea, to be shuffling on the creaking boards,
to be circling around a round fat conjure
man calling out the dip and spin, a man
whose gift and calling is to bind
lost and fleeing souls – how African
could it be to shuffle like this into
a frenzy,…

I include the epigraph, for the second time in two weeks, because it’s crucial; without it, I would’ve been lost, I fear. But instead of foundering about, I was able to zero in what became an incredibly rich work for me: I think it’s a conversation between Dawes and August Wilson, regarding the latter’s stage directions for the juba dance performed in the play Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. But it’s much more than that: it’s an African song, in Call and Response form. Call and Response: one of the most fundamental African musical patterns, incorporated into African American culture in everything from blues to gospel to hip hop to President Obama’s victory speech in 2008 (“Yes we Can” starting at about the 14:30 mark). That is the tradition, the very form, this poem draws on.

First, the Call, as quoted above: “How African could it possibly be…” with a catalog of all the ways the juba dance can’t possibly be African, even if it is set in a play about African Americans during the Great Migration and Harlem Renaissance. Look at the language: the shuffling, the syncretism of the conjure man and Christian imagery, the notion of that Christianity binding souls. Is this irony, or is it the language of slavery, adopted until it’s normalized? How African could it be to do these things?

Then the transition to the Response…

                        …every need
you have for a touch, every
hunger unmet, how African could
it be? Only the long gash
of forgetting: the shame of remembering,
the empty space where language
the auctioneer’s scatology, only
the commerce of your labor,
only this seductive love called
America with its cold breath
on you despite its promises of warmth,
only these could make it impossible
to be African. How African can
this juba dance be, how African?

… with that brief recapitulation of the Call in the last lines. Call: How African can it be? Response: Only this experience – being kidnapped, stolen from one’s home, forced into slavery, despised and scorned, only these things could strip the Africanness from the African. The speaker takes the position that juba dance is not African; it is an American imposition taken on by African Americans who’ve had the African beaten out of them over the foregoing 300+ years of enslavement. At least, I think that’s what the speaker is saying. It’s possible he’s being ironic, that the elements he sees as impossibly non-African are, in fact, African after all, and the Africanness has been incorporated, syncretized, into African American religion and life.

Truth be told, I’m still foundering. But information is a start, and I discovered plenty of information during my research on this poem, and that information made the richness I discovered. Now, is that richness what was intended? Is it what is even there? Is it anything close to what someone with a more intimate familiarity with this information sees? I don’t know. But at least it got me somewhere; I hope to find out some day if I’m on the right track (I can’t find any commentary on this specific poem itself, anywhere).

I’m at a serious disadvantage from the start, since the last time I saw a play I had acne and was worried about my math homework (and now I’ve got dry skin and wrinkles, but I’m still worried about my math homework). But all of this: the juba dance, the play – was googleable, so I figured I’d be able to cobble something together.

Let’s start with the Joe Turner Blues. Joe Turner is a modification of Joe Turney, a real person, brother of the Governor of Tennessee in fact, who, in the late 19th century, a sort of bounty hunter. But it’s more complicated than that; the prisoners he hunted were blacks imprisoned, often with flimsy trials, for lengthy terms at hard labor for petty crimes – gambling, for instance – and he returned them to the “convict lease system“: “slavery by another name” as PBS titles their documentary. Leon Litwack described the situation this way in his book Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow: “When a man turned up missing that night in the community, the word quickly spread, ‘They tell me Joe Turner’s come and gone.’ Family members were left to mourn the missing.” Today we’ve eliminated the hard labor part, and merely impose mandatory inflated sentences on the drugs more popular with blacks than whites, then pay privatized prisons directly.

That brings us to August Wilson’s play. Dr. Michael Downing of Kutztown University (part of the Penn State system) curates a website full of resources, including essays like “The Souls of Black Folk Adrift in August Wilson’s Drama” by Stephanie Larkin linking the juba dance, religion, and African retention.

The poem is titled “The Separation/Retention” – “retention” has a specific meaning in this context, the retention of cultural nuances in spite of diaspora. It’s a term from anthropological study, first by E. Franklin Frazier, who, in his 1939 book The Negro Family in the United States, argued that under the effects of slavery – particularly the way families were separated forcibly at the whim of a slaveowner – African Americans had lost their African culture. One is left to wonder, since they were not permitted to be part of American culture, where did that leave them?

This conversation continued when Melville J. Herkovits researched ‘how elements of African culture were retained and transformed by New World Blacks.…”

A conversation. A conversation between blues singer Mississippi John Hurt (and his predecessors) and the African American community. A conversation between anthropologists Frazier and Herkovits. A conversation between August Wilson and Kwame Dawes, between Dawes and me, between me and the poem, and all the resources I’ve encountered in these few days. The Call, and the Response. There’s nothing more fundamentally African, more fundamentally human.


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