James Applewhite, Hearing 'Southern Voices'

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James Applewhite i

James Applewhite is a professor of English at Duke University in Durham, N.C. hide caption

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James Applewhite

James Applewhite is a professor of English at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

For the past few weeks the airwaves have been filled with the voices of people not often heard in the national media. They are the same people who inspired poet James Applewhite many years ago to write "Southern Voices."

Today the poem retains a poignant resonance. It's collected in a new anthology of Applewhite's work. He reads the poem aloud, and talks with Debbie Elliott about its significance.

Southern Voices

If you understand my accent,

You will know it is not out of ignorance.

Broom sedge in wind has curved this bent

Into speech. This clay of vowels, this diffidence

 

Of consonantal endings, murmurs defeat:

Caught like a chorus from family and servants.

This is the hum of blessings over the meat

Your calvary spared us, echoed from an aunt's

 

Bleak pantry. This colorless tone, like flour

Patted onto the cheeks, is poor-white powder

To disguise the minstrel syllables lower

In our register, from a brownface river.

 

If it sounds as if minds were starved,

Maybe fatback and beans, yams and collards

Weighed down by vitamins of wit, lard

Mired speed, left wetlip dullards

 

In cabins by cotton. But if bereft

Of the dollars and numbers, our land's whole

Breath stirs with its Indian rivers. Our cleft

Palate waters for a smoke of the soul,

 

A pungence of pig the slaves learned

To burn in pits by the levee. This melon

Round of field and farmer, servant turned

Tenant, longs for a clear pronunciation,

 

But stutters the names of governors, Klan

And cross-burnings, mad dogs and lynchings.

So ours is the effacing slur of men

Ashamed to speak. We suffer dumb drenchings

 

Of honeysuckle odor, love for a brother

Race which below the skin is us, lust

Projected past ego onto this shadow-other.

So we are tongue-tied, divided, the first

 

To admit face to face our negligence

And ignorance of self: our musical tone

Of soul-syllable, penchant for the past tense,

Harelip contractions unable to be one.

 

Reprinted from "Selected Poems" by permission of Duke University Press. Copyright 2005.

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