DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
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, that poem seems to have a new and poignant resonance. We came upon it in a new anthology of Applewhite's work and asked him to the studio to read it aloud.
Mr. JAMES APPLEWHITE (Poet): (Reading) `"Southern Voices." If you understand my accent, you will know it is not out of ignorance. Broom, sage and 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 cavalry spared us, echoed from a aunt's bleak pantry. This colorless tone like flour patted onto the cheeks, this poor white powder to disguise the minstrel syllables lower in our register from a brown-faced river. If it sounds as if minds were starved, maybe fatback and beans, yams and collards weighed down vitamins of wit. Lard-marred speed left wet-lipped 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 smoke of the soul, a pungent of pigs 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 suffered on drenchings of honeysuckle odor, love for our 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, hair-lip contractions unable to be one.'
ELLIOTT: "Southern Voices" by James Applewhite.
Mr. Applewhite, when did you write that?
Mr. APPLEWHITE: I wrote it in 1985. I was preparing to give a talk on the poet at home in the South for a convocation of Southern writers in Baton Rouge, as a matter of fact. I was thinking toward New Orleans, which I planned to visit, I was thinking about Southern writers I admired, but then I was also thinking about my own accent and feeling a little diffident and a little defensive about it.
As I was working on the essay, suddenly there came into my mind the memory of this voice I'd heard in a restaurant near an interstate highway, a Northern person whose voice cut like a knife through the butter of our Southern voices. I simply started writing the poem, and it came out rhymed.
ELLIOTT: Why do we feel funny about the way we talk sometimes from the South?
Mr. APPLEWHITE: Oh, well, that, to some extent, has changed. We've had enough Southern politicians and presidents and so on and many other speakers. But in my day, when I was growing up in eastern North Carolina, it was often taken automatically as a sign of ignorance, of backwardness, if you spoke with a Southern accent.
ELLIOTT: As our nation has been struggling to understand what happened in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, race has been a big part of that conversation. I'm curious now when you read aloud this poem, does it sound different to you?
Mr. APPLEWHITE: I'm amazed at how timely it sounds. I think the greatest sadness I feel is that the things I said in 1985 are immediately applicable now, that so little has changed.
ELLIOTT: I'd like you to talk a little bit about this line toward the end, `Love for a brother race, which below the skin is us, lust projected past ego onto this shadow other.'
Mr. APPLEWHITE: I'm suggesting in the poem that this thing that I symbolize by a cleft palate that waters for--the pungence of pigs the slaves learned to burn in pits by the levee--this is a division in the Southern psyche, a division between white and black, between owners and formerly owned, and that the whole Southern voice, the whole lyricism that wants to come out is impeded by this cleavage.
You know, I'm using the trope voice, the idea voice, as meaning something much wider, a cultural outlook, a cultural attitude. So when I say `stutters the names of governors, Klan and cross-burnings,' I mean that the voice of the South can't really say those things with a clear conscience. It's impeded by knowing that they're there in a kind of underworld, like what I call a brown-faced river, and that in a sense, the poem suggests a great deal more self-knowledge on the part of the Southern voice is necessary if it's to be one harmonious tone, if it can be a harmony looking toward the future.
ELLIOTT: James Applewhite's poem is called "Southern Voices." It's included in a new anthology of his work from the past 30 years called simply "Selected Poems." He spoke with us from member station WUNC in Chapel Hill.
Thank you, Mr. Applewhite.
Mr. APPLEWHITE: Thank you.
ELLIOTT: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott. call. Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.
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