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Text and Meaning in T.J. Reddy's Poems in One-Part Harmony (part 1 of 4)

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“And the syndrome goes on;
this is only a poem,
wondering when to our senses
we will come home.”
––T.J. Reddy (from A Poem About A Syndrome)

Most of the more celebrated names among African-American authors, poets, and artists are known to the world because of their association with specific cultural arts movements. The recently-deceased Amiri Baraka has been identified as a hero of both the late 1950s Beat Movement and the 1960s and 1970s Black Arts Movement. Poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks and Sterling Brown remain renowned for their link to the Harlem Renaissance.

One of the more powerful qualities of such movements is that they often inspire more creative genius than the world takes time to recognize. Or sometimes they produce creative thinkers of a type that “others” tend to fear and consequently attempt to destroy. It is possible both these scenarios may be applied to the poet, visual artist, human rights advocate, and educator known as T.J. Reddy.

A Select Catalog Listing

As a painter, Reddy’s work reflects the traditions of the Harlem Renaissance and the colors of the tropics––blazing reds, yellows, oranges and turquoise––assembled to present absorbing visual narratives on the culture and history of people of African descent. As a poet, he occupies a self-constructed space that bridges the aesthetic qualities and cultural concerns of fellow wordsmiths such as Haki Madhubuti, Etheridge Knight, and Henry Dumas. As an advocate for racial and social equality, he holds the uneasy distinction of having been one of “The Charlotte Three.”

His first book of poems, Less Than a Score But a Point, was published by no less than Random House’s Vintage Books imprint in 1974. That singular event literally placed his name in a select catalog listing beside some of literature’s most noted pens. They included those of: Langston Hughes, W.H. Auden, Albert Camus, William Faulkner, Sylvia Plath, Marcel Proust, Jean Paul Sartre, and Quincy Troupe.

Such a definitive moment in most creative artists’ lives would have meant gearing up for a tour of readings and addressing various conferences. As it was, Reddy––as part of the Charlotte Three along with Dr. James Earl Grant and Charles Parker––had been imprisoned two years earlier and lived in alternating states of semi-freedom. His second book of poetry, Poems in One-Part Harmony, did not see publication until the Carolina Wren Press brought it out in 1980.

The Cruel Absurdity of the Charlotte Three Case

Students of 1970s African-American history will recognize the tag, if you will, of the Charlotte Three as the one applied to Grant, Parker, and Reddy when they were accused of setting fire to the Lazy-B Stable in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. The fire reportedly resulted in the death of 15 horses. The incident occurred in 1968 and was first declared an accident.

Four years later, despite the acknowledged lack of evidence to warrant his imprisonment, and the disclosure that two “witnesses” had been paid $4,000 each to provide unsubstantiated testimony against him, Reddy was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Grant was sentenced to 25 years and Parker to 10. The unusual severity of the sentences and the cruel absurdity of the case itself often drew comparisons to others like that of The Wilmington 10. The miscarriage of justice seemed so blatant that It generated protests, petitions, and letter-writing campaigns from Blacks and Whites alike on behalf of the three men. For Reddy, the initial conviction marked the beginning a judicial and spiritual odyssey.

NEXT: Text and Meaning in T.J. Reddy’s Poems in One-Part Harmony Part 2

by Aberjhani
author of The River of Winged Dreams
and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance

More on T.J. Reddy and Aberjhani’s Text and Meaning Series

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