Deconstruction of identity is a
recurring motif in Afro-American literature. The exploration of the physical,
emotional and spiritual devastation wrought by slavery continues to haunt its
characters be it in literature, poetry or music. The most dangerous of
slavery's effects is its negative impact on the individual's sense of self.
Alienation underpins much of Black American writing. Slaves were told they were
subhuman and were traded as commodities, whose worth could be expressed only
in dollars. Consequently the much criticised 'one theme' of Afro-American
writing (slavery) cannot be escaped. In Toni Morrison's Beloved (for example) Paul D - a typical exponent, describes his
heart as a 'tin tobacco box.' After his traumatizing experiences at Sweet
Home and, especially, at the prison camp in Alfred, Georgia, he locks away
his feelings and memories in this 'box,' which has, by the time Paul D
arrives at 124, 'rusted' over completely. By alienating himself from his
emotions, Paul D hopes to preserve himself from further psychological damage.
In order to secure this protection, however, Paul D sacrifices much of his
humanity by foregoing feeling and gives up much of his selfhood by repressing
his memories. Although Paul D is convinced that nothing can pry the lid of
his box open, his strange, dreamlike sexual encounter with Beloved—perhaps a
symbol of an encounter with his past—causes the box to burst and his heart
once again to glow red.
// into a cell. Soledad
the six fingers
I need to remember
the bright orange
around my waist
a yesterdays yoked
into my cuffed hands.
('The Spanish Word for Solitude')
American prisons are the new slave ships for Betts. The image of a black man
in chains and cuffs is an image that for many is much to contemplate. Here in
this disturbing book of poetry Shahid Reads His Own Palm, Reginald Dwayne Betts takes us back into the whole Afro-American
Diaspora. A latter day Paul D, in 'yesterdays yoked' - the lid is
rusted solid on the tragedy that is the Black man and women's experience in
the new world. Slaves were laid in
rows in ships and stacked like coffins to maximize profit. In 'Red Onion State Prison' (page 25) the modern day slave
ship sets sale:
A warehouse of iron
bunks: straight lines
and right angles.
flush against the gutted
of a mountain
white paint /
a slender metal rod
then scrapes it against
concrete and stretches night //
years of sentences
beckon over heads and hearts,
silent, a promise, like mistletoe.
Unlike Paul D, Betts is the antithesis - a black man in modern day America
shackled and very aware of it's implication on the present: and this young
man is trying to say something. He talks about his father who 'never voted'.
He tells us about trying to write poetry with chains and cuffs on. He gives a
voice to the dispossessed, poorly educated and those on the margins of
society. From his slave ship he takes his 'two inch plastic pen' and tears at
the flesh of that joke word conditioning. He asks why is it that Black men fill the new slave ships of
America: is it that Black people are prone to rape, kill, steal and so on, or
is it that being bought for dollars and treated as subhuman has legacy:
bell on this table
sure as the no
I got from the parole
board, my eighth turn-
down 'cause the
board thinks thirteen
years in a box isn't
enough to turn the
wildness in a man
whose father never voted
more rage, but a brush
fire waiting to happen and
memories, those lies
that fold my body
into a half-
moon wrapped around
this desk and threaten to drown
what refuses to listen.
There's Paul D's box again. The new slave ships are full but there are people
trying to set the human beings in them free. In his introduction - which is a
poetry in itself, Betts gives thanks in this way which tells his real story:
This book has a long list of people who ushered it out
of my head
and onto the page. Thanks to everyone I
the walls of Fairfax County Jail, Southampton
Center, Red Onion State Prison, Sussex 1
Augusta Correctional Center, Coffeewood
Center... Thanks to Elizabeth for making me
what a long line I come from. Thanks to TSE
encouraging me to write a poem that moves in the
world like I
do... To everyone who has cared to believe
me when I
called myself poet. To Tony Hoagland, for
a letter written from a young man aspiring
to be a poet
despite handcuffs... Special thanks to my
wrote the first poem I ever read. And for
Terese and our son, Micah, who both give me
reason to add
to the song I sing.
This book is disturbing. Technically it is solid and very American in shape.
It's themes are clear and to the point and very accurate. Alienation and
deconstruction of self fill almost every line. I found myself concentrating
not on poetic style but on what this poet was saying - and perhaps this is
where poetry has to be made to turn to - or perhaps it is just another facet
of the form that adds to it's richness. I must admit I threw a bit of
prejudice at this book when I first considered it, but on reading I just
became more and more disturbed. I or you could easily - very easily with one
bad choice be inside that slave ship, a ship that really needs to be cast
adrift and sunk round about Guantanamo bay. That America's prisons and legal
processes are an affront to it's ideals and incredible gifts. And Betts takes
us onto the ship and lets us experience something - just something of the
reality of despair that is the lot of too many Afro-American men and women.
And that the deconstruction of Paul D and others is still dreadfully
tangible. And given grace to retrace the story continues (that one theme)
from the work of Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Richard Bruce and Nugent
Aaron Douglas. It can be found in the songs of Simon, Dylan, Wonder and many
more. It can be seen in the novels of Twain, Morrison and dozens of others.
It can be seen everywhere in America and beyond as in a young gifted and
black who threw his Olympic medal into the river questioning his alienation
and rejection. That a country that promises so much to the individual, except
if you come from the slave ship. And out of personal tragedy Betts takes that
euphemism conditioning and historical
neglect and turns it to fine art. And as Langston Hugh's said in 1926 in,
'The Negro Speaks of Rivers':
rivers ancient as the world and older than the
human blood in human veins.
My soul has
grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in
the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I danced in
the Nile when I was old
I built my
hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon
the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the
singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy
all golden in the sunset.
I've known rivers:
My soul has grown
deep like the rivers.
Hats off, bows low, steps back.
Mc Laughlin 2010