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Text and Meaning in T.J. Reddy's Poems in One-Part Harmony (part 3 of 4)

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If you missed part 1 of this series and want to start at the beginning please check the links below. Part 3 starts now:

“…With endurance, laughter and a song
these walls of injustice can be torn down, light
can enter the rubble,
the road to freedom can become more visible…”
––T.J. Reddy from the poem “We Are Not Disillusioned”

In poems such as “On My Way Home from School,” “Black Child Watching Cartoons,” and “Four Black Children Walking the Streets in Charlotte, North Carolina on a December Night, 1968,” T.J. Reddy provides unsettling snapshots of the impact of racism and poverty on the psyches of African-American children. Anyone telling themselves this particular subject is outdated in the year 2014 need only recall the numerous dialogues that surfaced following the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Interviews with numerous black fathers and mothers revealed to the world how they prepare their sons to avoid violent interaction with “white authority figures.”

In “Black Child Watching Cartoons” the conflict is more internal than external but no less damaging:

I am a Black child of the fifties,
developing negative images of myself,
watching a cartoon about Africa and America,
seeing history manipulated and indoctrinating,
presented as funny and factual.
––T.J. Reddy

Stylistically, the poet most frequently employs free verse that gives his lines and voice an unambiguous clarity. Occasional rhymes reminiscent of Langston Hughes’ blues poems and dialogue that brings to mind works by Henry Dumas also help shape the poems. Ultimately, however, they are defined by the qualities of political outrage balanced with spiritual contemplation and romantic inclinations that inform his aesthetic sensibilities.

Several poems ––such as “Revisiting the Mountaintop” and “Poem to Ben Chavis” ––lean toward the African praise-poem tradition. The author, however, avoids giving his voice over completely to the praise-poem genre and blends into his lines editorial observations on both heroic and infamous ––such as in “Nooked Nix or Millhouse Grind” (think Richard M. Nixon)-- figures. Considering the author’s former position as a staff writer for The Charlotte Observer, the journalistic influence on certain poems is not surprising. It in fact increases the value of the work by expanding it beyond the lyrically personal and placing it within a broader more historical and collective context.

A Literary Tradition of Frustrated Compassion

Pulsing at the core of the book are those verses, the title poem among them, that document the conviction of the Charlotte Three. These sometimes read like headings for entries in a journal and include the following:

  • Poem to Jim Grant
  • A Nest of Litter
  • We Are Not Disillusioned
  • Another Ordeal
  • 4 What
  • July 14, 1972 – Trial Sentence Poem
  • To Know How I Feel
  • So Long… See You Later

Written as they were during the mid-1970s, the poems are not necessarily representative of the same individual legal scenarios that resulted in the present-day incarceration of some 1 million African Americans. They nevertheless do reflect the frustrated––and yet somehow compassionate–– consciousness that has characterized the writings of other African-American men from the time of the slave narratives to the Autobiography of Malcolm X and Soledad Brother, The Prison Letters of George Jackson. In the book’s introduction, H. Bruce Franklin compares the work to Ho Chi Minh’s Prison Diary. A more contemporary comparison, although co-authored by his sister Martina Davis-Correia and filmmaker Jen Marlowe with minimal literary input from the subject himself, might be I Am Troy Davis.

The poems paint a picture more vivid than anything you are likely to find on Instagram of the constantly-charged political and social atmosphere of the era. The emotional tension, sometimes inspiring like unexpected bursts of song, sometimes brooding like a shattered heart, is always palpable. The lines record all the inconsistencies of the criminal justice system process that led to Reddy’s, Grant’s, and Park’s convictions. It is far more tragic than ironic to experience the following:

I read the yellow paper: an arrest warrant,
no, a capias or fugitive warrant
which, in effect, says I am being rearrested
because I did not appear for trial,
a trial I never knew was scheduled to occur…
––J.T. Reddy

NEXT: Text and Meaning in T.J. Reddy’s Poems in One-Part Harmony Part 4

by Aberjhani
author of Visions of a Skylark Dressed in Black
and co-author of ELEMENTAL The Power of Illuminated Love

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

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