Come: these hands, this beat, the broad
Hiccup, a smile. Here, when all the heat
Has been washed & wrung clean from the body
When the men begin to open their leather cases
& hold their monocles a little closer to my heart
& the parable of the homegrown &
The parable of the artificial Negro
Will be told.
And here’s another poem that benefits greatly from a little context. Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham started out in black vaudeville shows and by the middle of the twentieth century, started performing in burlesque with the likes of Milton Berle and Eddie Cantor – in blackface. A complicated story, a complicated history, a complicated man.
These complications show up in the poem. The “Artificial Negro” plays on the Flannery O’Connor story with a blunter name there’s no need to spell out here. O’Connor’s artificial Negro is a Christ figure in the form of a lawn jockey who offers reconnection and salvation to a grandfather and his grandson, two lost souls accidentally touring hell. But Johnson’s Pigmeat as the Artificial Negro is more of the Creator Created by the Creation: a black man in blackface? What to make of that? What to make, in the first place, of the minstrel shows that appropriated black culture in order to mock it? Johnson’s collection, Darktown Follies, is patterned after these minstrel shows, as he explains in an excellent Next Big Thing entry, where he writes: “I wrote this book because I wanted to create a framework for those hesitations regarding race and power…. I hope my readers feel a little off-balance.” This one did.
And what to make of a poem that uses Markham’s linguistic patterning, a fluency that has become the hallmark of rap and hip hop…
Here, come Hell or high-water; Hell
Or some falter. All the ease in legalese,
Here comes my tautology –
A blackness of a blackness of a blackness.
My monochromatic rainbow,…
…to mock back?
Pigmeat Markham performed what could be considered the first rap song. His “Here Comes the Judge,” initially a comedy routine in his act, became a standard bit on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In which led to the release of a single (as well as an imitation), and to a gig for Markham on the series (if you’ve never heard of Laugh-In, well, that’s what Google is for). Who created whom?
What’s amazing is how that goofy phrase, so familiar to those of us who grew up with it as a joke, turns ominous at the end of the poem. The Artificial Negro, like Christ, is a figure of salvation, but also of a day of judgment and reckoning. Poetry, at its best, finds all the nuances in words and phrases we thought we knew, stands them on their heads, and knocks us flat with implications. Here comes the judge. I sure hope so, because the list of those whose blood cries out for justice gets longer every day.