my birthday present

my birthday present
My awesome birthday present 1/26/11 (see story under my first post)

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Toi Derricotte

St. Peter Claver
by Toi Derricotte
Every town with black Catholics has a St. Peter Claver’s.   
My first was nursery school.
Miss Maturin made us fold our towels in a regulation square and nap on army cots.
No mother questioned; no child sassed.
In blue pleated skirts, pants, and white shirts,
we stood in line to use the open toilets
and conserved light by walking in darkness.
Unsmiling, mostly light-skinned, we were the children of the middle class, preparing to take
       our  parents’ places in a world that would demand we fold our hands and wait.
They said it was good for us, the bowl of soup, its pasty whiteness;
I learned to swallow and distrust my senses.

On holy cards St. Peter’s face is olive-toned, his hair near kinky;
I thought he was one of us who pass between the rich and poor, the light and dark.
Now I read he was “a Spanish Jesuit priest who labored for the salvation of the African
        Negroes and the abolition of the slave trade.”
I was tricked again, robbed of my patron,
and left with a debt to another white man.

I have heard the argument that it should not matter that we were raised to think of God as male and of Jesus as Caucasian. I have long struggled with the Holy Father, the patriarchy of Christianity, women’s second class status throughout. However, because of this perception as a female, I am able to identify with the message in St. Peter Claver. This poem helps me understand how much harder it would be to swallow Christianity as a black female.
This week I chose to feature the black poet,Toi Derricotte, because she is going to be reading her poetry Hart Chapel at CUP at 7:30 on Tuesday evening, March 22. I will be going, call or email me if you care to join me. I know several of you have heard her in the past and were very impressed, so i am looking forward to seeing her.
Derricotte is nationally recognized and has written several books of poetry and prose.    As you will see on her website, she does not “look black.”  This is perhaps part of the reason she wrote the poem below, A Note on My Son’s Face.  I find this poem to be brutally honest. I think it would be extremely difficult to share these feelings even with the closest friend, yet she is willing reveal herself to us.  Her candor serves its purpose, here too I am given some level of understanding as to the vicious toll prejudice takes on its victims. Very powerful poems.
Derricotte appeared on PBS and you can hear her reading a poem at this link.

A Note on My Son’s Face
by Toi Derricotte
Tonight, I look, thunderstruck
at the gold head of my grandchild.   
Almost asleep, he buries his feet   
between my thighs;
his little straw eyes
close in the near dark.
I smell the warmth of his raw   
slightly foul breath, the new death   
waiting to rot inside him.
Our breaths equalize our heartbeats;   
every muscle of the chest uncoils,   
the arm bones loosen in the nest   
of nerves. I think of the peace   
of walking through the house,
pointing to the name of this, the name of that,
an educator of a new man.

Mother. Grandmother. Wise
Snake-woman who will show the way;   
Spider-woman whose black tentacles
hold him precious. Or will tear off his head,   
her teeth over the little husband,
the small fist clotted in trust at her breast.

This morning, looking at the face of his father,
I remembered how, an infant, his face was too dark,   
nose too broad, mouth too wide.
I did not look in that mirror
and see the face that could save me
from my own darkness.
Did he, looking in my eye, see
what I turned from:
my own dark grandmother
bending over gladioli in the field,
her shaking black hand defenseless   
at the shining cock of flower?

I wanted that face to die,
to be reborn in the face of a white child.

I wanted the soul to stay the same,   
for I loved to death,
to damnation and God-death,   
the soul that broke out of me.
I crowed: My Son! My Beautiful!   
But when I peeked in the basket,   
I saw the face of a black man.

Did I bend over his nose
and straighten it with my fingers   
like a vine growing the wrong way?   
Did he feel my hand in malice?

Generations we prayed and fucked   
for this light child,
the shining god of the second coming;   
we bow down in shame
and carry the children of the past   
in our wallets, begging forgiveness.

A picture in a book,
a lynching.
The bland faces of men who watch   
a Christ go up in flames, smiling,   
as if he were a hooked
fish, a felled antelope, some
wild thing tied to boards and burned.   
His charring body
gives off light—a halo
burns out of him.
His face scorched featureless;
the hair matted to the scalp
like feathers.
One man stands with his hand on his hip,   
another with his arm
slung over the shoulder of a friend,   
as if this moment were large enough   
to hold affection.

How can we wake
from a dream
we are born into,
that shines around us,   
the terrible bright air?

Having awakened,
having seen our own bloody hands,   
how can we ask forgiveness,
bring before our children the real   
monster of their nightmares?

The worst is true.
Everything you did not want to know.


Gary said...

The first poem, "St. Peter Claver" reminds me of the Black Madonna in "The Secret Life of Bees" by Sue Monk Kidd. I love that book because of the image of the Madonna and the power she has for the women in the book. I use that as a textbook in my "SMART" Class, the cohort class for Single Mothers Achieving Real Triumph. The love it. We start every day by reading a poem in this class.

Loretta said...

Jayne, that is a great connection. I didn't think of that until you wrote about it here. Your students are lucky to have you in their lives.


marie-josé said...

You could write a whole fucking dissertation about "St Peter Claver" and "A Note on My Son's Face." The titles --and the language-- of the poems are deceptively simple. Peter Claver was a Jesuit who, unlike his colleagues, was outraged by slavery. And here Toi Derricotte depicts the facts that she is raised in a religion that had both accepted slavery, and freed slaves. That is structured with rules and regulations, like an army. And where she feels more like a stigmata than a member.

And this feeling of stigmata continues in a yet harsher way in "A Note in My Son's Face." Mentally, you feel skinned. Birth and death have roles here --but guess who's the star. If racism is part of the topic, it is not only Black versus White, it is Black versus Black, prejudices within the same race. I think that's why this poem is so incredibly painful. This poem could be titled "Ode to Nihilism." Or No Exit.

These are powerful, striking pieces. My question: Do all Derricote poems go like this -- hit, and then crash? I hope not.

pkcyphert said...

When you made your observation about the black Madonna, I was reminded of the plump, jolly, black woman who is "God" in The Shack. Although I have to say I liked virtually nothing about that book, it too indicates our dissatisfaction with the church's depiction of God. Times, they are a changin' Good thing in my mind.

pkcyphert said...

Thank you for commenting on the complexity of these poems. I appreciate your thoughts,as I am new to examining a poem and I find you insight very thought provoking. S

pkcyphert said...

I wasn't done commenting but accidentally posted my comment too soon. To continue....., it is apparent that the church has made no progress in leading society through a reevaluation of our approach to religion. The double standard and hypocrisy continues as does the flight of thinking people, or perhaps just frustrated people, from the status quo of the church.

All of her poems do not hit and crash, some that I have read are uplifting. I will post an example shortly. BUT, I went to her poetry reading last night and was profoundly moved by her readings from "he Black Notebooks, An Interior Journey" I bought this book and expect to be profoundly changed in reading it. She also read excerpts from a new book that she hopes to have released in Jan. 2012.

WOW. I have never been exposed to an author who is so willing to pull off her own scabs and examine reality in order to make progress in understanding prejudice. Yes, she exposes black on black prejudice, but it is obvious where the roots of that bigotry lie. This was only the second time she read publicly from the new book she is working on, and I could see the toll it was taking on her psyche to address the brutality of her father's abuse and the venomous childhood she suffered as a fair skinned black child. Her words certainly left an impression on me. I felt she was extremely brave and was thankful for the chance to tell her that. So, I think her purpose, or what drives her, is serious, important, and life changing, for those who will listen. And to top it off, she has such a kind and welcoming spirit. I won’t forget Toi Derricotte.