There’s power in art. Power to persuade. Power to inform. Power to move. And the powerful work of Ashley M. Jones is deeply rooted in stories and images from the American South. Today on the Reckon Interview, we discuss Ashley’s latest collection “Reparations Now!” the title of which comes from one of her poems written as a response to the infamous segregationist George Wallace. Throughout her collection, Ashley nimbly and beautifully moves through the South’s past, present and future, with pieces that look both inward and outward.
She calls to mind the stories of her childhood, of her grandmother, of victims of lynching in the early 1900s, as well as police shootings in the present day. And she covers the triumphs and the struggles of being a Black woman in Birmingham, Alabama in 2021. Art is also work and Ashley may be one of the hardest working people in the entire South.
She was just named Poet Laureate of the state of Alabama making her the youngest ever and the first Black Alabamian to be named the states Poet Laureate. Her work has appeared on CNN, the American Academy of Poets, Poetry Magazine, Garden & Gun, and so much more. And she’s also the founding director of the Magic City Poetry Festival and the co-director of PEN Birmingham, among other things.
And on top of all of that, she’s a teacher at the Alabama School of Fine Arts. And she’s a member of the core faculty for the Converse College MFA program. Today, Ashley will do some readings for us and we’ll talk about her work and her motivations and what it means to be named Poet Laureate of Alabama.
We’ll also talk about why she chose to stay in the Deep South and develop an artist community rather than head north or head out west. So let’s go ahead and get started with this week’s episode of the Reckon Interview. Ashley M. Jones, thank you for coming on the Reckon Interview.
Ashley M. Jones: Thank you, John.
John Hammontree: You’ve just been announced recently as the Poet Laureate of Alabama, and I think it may make you the first Black Poet Laureate of Alabama.
That’s very exciting news. So as we get started, I wonder if you remember the very first time that you wrote a poem, not as a school assignment, but one that you wrote for yourself.
Ashley M. Jones: Yes. I mean, I can’t recite it and I think we should all be grateful for that, that I can recite it. But I remember quite vividly, after I had had like my first encounter with poetry in the second grade, which I feel like I talk about too much.
So maybe I shouldn’t bore you with that. But after I read the book, “Honey, I Love” by Eloise Greenfield. I had already a spy notebook, which I didn’t write poems in at first. It was my Harriet, the Spy, like, “I’m going to watch my family and write creepy stuff about them” book. So after I decided I wanted to be a poet, I wrote poems in that book. And I remember one poem in particular. I don’t even know why I thought this, but I wrote a poem about how no one understood me. No one really liked me. Like I was so unloved, whatever. Which was not true. It was just poetic angst, you know. So yeah, I remember that one pretty vividly, and I bet I could find that notebook. It’s at my parents’ house somewhere, um, and read those cringey poems.
John Hammontree: Someday, we’ll have the published book of the unpublished early poems of Ashley M. Jones, and that’ll be in there. So it was pretty early on for you, you know, reading through your new book “Reparations Now!” and some of your older work, you know, it’s interesting, just the way that you find poetry in everyday things. You know, you have a poem in here about waiting in line to see the Avengers and poems about, James Brown songs, and in your first book, “Magic City Gospel” about Sam Cooke songs. But also, about these painful moments in American history, like the lynching of Mary Turner and personal moments too.
Has poetry kind of altered the way that you experience the world? Like how much of this are you kind of hearing and thinking about in real time while you’re standing in line to see the Avengers and how much of it is reflection later on?
Ashley M. Jones: I don’t want to sound pretentious ever. That’s just my disclaimer in life, but I do think, I think in poems. And you see why I said, I don’t want to sound pretentious cause that sounds super ridiculous. But what I mean is, I don’t know, some of these poems that you just mentioned, I’m actively thinking the things that I wrote. I start to see like sitting in that auditorium after the Avengers had finished looking at that little boy playing with his gun, all these phrases started to come into my mind.
You know, that’s how I decided to process that moment. Now, of course, there’s like the initial normal processing of “what’s that kid doing?” This is so frustrating, but then the poetry stuff comes too. And sometimes it is a later reflection. Sometimes I will have read something like with Mary Turner and I believe I read like something was posted on Facebook and I already knew about Mary Turner and it was right around the time that Stephon Clark was murdered. And it just all started bubbling up in my mind. And I think, you know, maybe like a day after I’d read it, something clicked. And that’s when the poem started to come. But generally speaking, I mean, some of my friends will say, “oh, you talk like a poet.” Because I’ll just say like poet-y things, you know.
John Hammontree: We recently spoke with Cedric Burnside, he’s a blues musician out of Mississippi. And he reflected, you know, like after the year that we just had, it feels like everybody understands and needs the blues. And that also feels true for poetry right now. I know that you’re a teacher. I’m curious about what that process has been like for you and how you’re helping your students process the trauma on the last year through their art.
Ashley M. Jones: Yeah. Yeah. That’s a question. Because maybe the question is, “am I processing it at all?” It’s definitely been a tough year, a few years, I guess, in many ways. Obviously the pandemic has just done a lot, is still doing a lot. And like the multiple traumas there. Not only seeing people die in such large quantity and so quickly, um, but knowing that there’s something in the air that could kill us just by breathing it, knowing that our leaders seem to not care about our lives. Being a teacher last year, when it was time to go to school, I really, like many teachers, I was just wondering, like, “does anybody care if I die at all?” Now I’m really asking, do they care if these kids die with so many anti mask states. Like looking at Florida, the governor is actively trying to stop people from using masks. What does that mean? And what does that mean for the students to know that people would throw them into a situation where they are unsafe?
So, I mean, I don’t know. Luckily I’m an artist, so I’m able to have my students write out their issues. But it’s also been difficult to show up each day, dealing with that trauma, the trauma of the George Floyd, murder and everything that built toward that and everything that will come after it. That was difficult, to be with my students as they processed that as well.
Um, but also. I lost my father in April of this year. And every day is a new challenge with that. My family is extremely close and my dad was the, is I don’t like to use past tense. My dad is the center of our family. It does get hard to stand up in front of students and try to be excited about poetry and be excited about their new discoveries, when I am trying to cling so tightly to a past that can never come true again. But at the same time, something that’s always been true is that teaching does bring me joy unexpectedly. And it used to just be for silly reasons, like if I was depressed about, I dunno, some guy who ghosted me, I would go teach and feel like, yes, life is meaningful. You know, humans are okay.
And now it’s, I’m coming to school, in my mask, and worried about how the numbers are going up and thinking about my dad and I teach and I feel like, okay, these students have a future to look forward to, and maybe they’re going through something too. But for this hour, hour and a half, we’re all here together doing art and that can save us for today. So hopefully that’s, what’s happening. You’d have to ask my students if I’m doing anything good for them at all.
John Hammontree: Through line through the book. I don’t know how much of this book was written, you know, before and during the pandemic, you do have a poem in here about love in the time of a pandemic.
And so I get the sense that at least some of it was written in there. But it’s also this accumulation of trauma, particularly for Black Americans over the centuries and how that kind of manifests itself in everyday life. And the poem that the book gets its title from, I think is a riff on George Wallace’s infamous speech “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
And you have a poem “Reparations Now, Reparations Tomorrow, Reparations Forever.” Um, and. You know, our listeners won’t necessarily be able to see this because so much of what you’re doing on the page is playing with space and formatting and things like that. And this stunning poem, I said I was a former theater kid, so I don’t know if this is the right terminology, but it seems to be written in five acts, um, maybe five sections.
And so at times you even use Wallace’s own words to rebuke him, but I was hoping that for our audience, you would just read that last section.
Ashley M. Jones:
A Case for Reparations
When, Governor, can we enjoy the full richness of the Great American Dream?
My grandmother was a sharecropper. My grandfather beat his Black wife and Black children. My uncle was arrested for a crime he didn’t commit—in America, even the shadows of Black people are black enough to hide all innocence. Some nights, I dream of being killed like Emmett Till or Trayvon Martin or Sandra Bland or [INSERT BLACK PERSON’S NAME HERE]. Some nights, I insert
my name there. Is that the American Dream? Governor, President, Mayor, Boss Man, Woman With A Cell Phone or a Police Badge or a Bank Account and The Skin Tender Enough To Make Murder Legal, when will you be tired of the taste of Black blood? Sometimes, I’m singing a song and you make that feel like death. Sometimes, I’m dancing a dance and you make that feel like shame. Sometimes, I’m sitting on my porch just trying to eat a damn melon and you make that feel like I’m selling my Black soul. My parents told me I could be anything, even God. That’s the least I’m owed—to know I’m worth heaven, yes, but also worth a life on earth. My mother told us we were pretty enough to be dolls, pretty enough to be praised in the Book of Barbie. That’s the least I’m owed—a face, skin, hair so obvi- ously, inherently, objectively beautiful it’s frozen in plastic and sold to kids all over America to hug and love and look at with the eyes of dreams. What, you think all
I want is money? What, you think money can ever repay what you stole? Give me land, give me all the blood you ripped out of our backs, our veins. Give me every snapped neck and the noose you wove to hoist the body up. Give me the screams you silenced in so many dark and lustful rooms. Give me the songs you said were yours but you know came out of our lips first. Give me back Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. Give me back the beauty of my hair. The swell of my hips. The big of my lips. Give me back the whole Atlantic Ocean. Give me a never-ending blue. And a mule.
John Hammontree: I love that “and a mule” at the end. It made me smile while I was reading it. Yeah. Thank you for reading that. That’s powerful stuff.
And then I’m reflecting on what it means for you to now be the Poet Laureate of Alabama so far removed from, from Governor Wallace. What were you thinking as you were writing this? You know, the conversation about reparations has been in the air for a while now. I would say for a lot of white people like me, our first exposure to it might have been –other than the, you know, the 40 acres and a mule thing- might’ve beenTa-Nehisi Coates’s essay from a few years ago, “The Case for Reparations.” But you make it clear that it’s not a monetary thing or it’s not just a monetary thing. You know, it’s more of a moral reckoning. And I’m curious about what you were thinking as you were writing this one.
Ashley M. Jones: I wrote this five act poem.
I wrote it at school. People always ask me what my process is and it’s an interesting process. I write anywhere about anything, as you said earlier. And so I think I was getting ready to teach a poem and I can’t remember right now what it was that I was teaching to lead me to George Wallace, but something told me, “let me just read all of George Wallace’s inauguration speech.”
I’ve never read it. I’ve only heard like the little clips, cause that’s all you can usually stomach, you know? And so I printed it out, sat at my desk, read it. And the whole time I was like, Ooh, wow. Like circling things, like, sounds like Trump, sounds like Trump. And the idea sort of descended upon me. You know, I feel like I should insert here. I do feel like every poem that I write is a gift to me. Like it’s not, it’s not. It’s something, I would call it God, the spirit, whatever, giving me that thing, you know, to share. And so the idea came to me like, okay, this is the same thing. People really don’t understand. We have been under the same regime forever. Like, even though we’ve changed, governors, we’ve changed presidents, it’s all the same thing. The words that whoever wrote that for George Wallace wrote for 1963 are the words literally coming out of this man’s mouth right now. The feeling behind it is the same feeling. So I wanted to connect all of that.
And in that thought process, of course, I was thinking about the ways that, as a Black person, I’m robbed of my personhood on an hourly basis. Living in America, living in Alabama, there are so many big and small things that I just want returned to our people. I was thinking about all of that, thinking about George Wallace and I had just spent four sections of the poem speaking sort of as George Wallace. So it was time by this fifth section to say, you know what, no, this is what I need from you, the ghost of George Wallace, and all of your descendants. Um, and so that’s kind of what I was thinking about. And I really do want people to understand that reparations is not a check. Like that is the most frustrating idea.
Of course, I’m not going to say, please don’t give us money either, because I think we need that, you know. But it’s really more than that. I want to be able to, you know, wear my natural hair and it not be called “natural hair.” It’s just my hair. This is just the hair that I have. It doesn’t need to be political.
It doesn’t need to be, you know, “oh my gosh, it’s so exotic.” It’s just my hair. You know, down to that level. And of course on a bigger level, I’d love to be able to walk down the street and not feel like my life is in danger if I see a cop car ride past. Or if I see someone, you know, wearing a Confederate flag on their t-shirt.
Um, or maybe I just don’t want to see that anymore. That’s even the reparation. Can we stop with the Confederate flags? Um, so anyway, yeah, I just kind of wanted to get that out of my system and say, these are the many things that we need.
John Hammontree: I can imagine that there might be somebody listening, thinking, well, you know, you’re the Poet Laureate of Alabama.
You’ve had all these awards, all these accolades, all this success. You know, at what point does it become made equal. And like you’ve said, there are just daily indignities, I guess. I mean, I’m thinking of Patrick Ewing being ushered out of Madison Square Garden during the NCAA basketball tournament last year, or Henry Louis Gates being arrested outside of his home.
Obviously the indignities that people like president Barack Obama have suffered despite their success as Black Americans. Is that kind of moral reckoning attainable or is it just something that’s always going to be on the horizon, do you think?
Ashley M. Jones: Whatever accolades I have, that, I don’t know, it doesn’t really have much to do with things becoming equal because the work that I’ve done, like… I’ll say it this way: people can look at me and think, oh, she’s got everything going on for her. Everything’s been so easy for her. It doesn’t matter that she’s Black, you know, she’s done well. The system is not against her, but that’s absolutely not true. Um, I feel like for me to even enter some rooms to even enter conversations, like, can you be the Poet Laureate of our state?
I’ve had to adhere to this almost inhuman standard of perfection. Um, you know, if you look at my resume, I’ve been at it for years, doing all the things, all the time. You know, I had a 4.0 grade point average for my whole life, through grad school. The amount of sacrifice that that takes. And I’m not saying I wasn’t blessed to be intelligent.
I’ve been very blessed. Let’s put that out there too. But the inequity does still lie in my success. In many ways I’ve been tokenized or called magical or exceptional, “the exceptional Negro.” People don’t use that phrase, at least not to my face, but that is a concept that does apply, I think, to my life.
And I think we can, we can only start to achieve that equality or equity when every person can just be a regular person. You don’t have to have a 15 page resume to be the Black person that gets to enter the room. And also the fact that I’m the first Black Poet Laureate of our state and it’s 2021 that itself tells you that it’s not equal yet.
This should not be the case. We should have had many Poets Laureate of many races by now, you know. So, yeah, I do think, I think it’s attainable, but I will not be alive to see it be attained and neither will my children or my children’s children. Because a lot of the reckoning, we’re still kind of battling it. Looking at this whole critical race theory debacle, which is laughable, like the fact that people think, first of all, that we’re teaching, you know, little kids critical race theory.
I don’t understand that. Like, no, you know. And that someone is so upset by the fact that their white child could learn that they’re descended from people who terrorized other people. I always say, well, think about little Ashley. I was five when I first experienced racism and some people are younger than that, you know?
And the racism I experienced was non-violent. So just imagine, think about Tamir Rice, who was 12 when he was killed. If he was not, you know, too young, then your child is not too young to simply learn about it. So if we’re still fighting that initial battle, if we’re still fighting, you know, can I put my Confederate flag up in your city?
Can I, you know, call the police on you because you’re in a park and I don’t like you being there. It’s going to take awhile. I think for us to get to that equal space.
John Hammontree: Your first book, “Magic City Gospel,” which is the first time that I read your work. I loved it. It’s a real love letter and also kind of a critique in response to Birmingham and your time growing up in Alabama. This book feels a little bit like you’ve widened your lens and are really kind of addressing the larger world. You’re still rooted in Alabama. But another one of the poems that stuck out to me was “All Y’all Really from Alabama.” Uh, and I wondered if you could read that one for us too.
Ashley M. Jones: Okay. And it begins with an epigraph from Dr. King:
All Y’all Really From Alabama
“…The straitjackets of race prejudice and discrimination do not wear only southern labels. The subtle, psychological technique of the North has approached in its ugliness and victimization of the Negro the outright terror and open brutality of the South.”
—Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Why We Can’t Wait
this here the cradle of this here nation—everywhere you look, roots run right back south. every vein filled with red dirt, blood, cotton. we the dirty word you spit out your mouth. mason dixon is an imagined line— you can theorize it, or wish it real, but it’s the same old ghost—see-through, benign. all y’all from alabama; we the wheel turning cotton to make the nation move. we the scapegoat in a land built from death. no longitude or latitude disproves the truth of founding fathers’ sacred oath:
we hold these truths like dark snuff in our jaw, Black oppression’s not happenstance; it’s law.
John Hammontree: Thank you. You know, as I was reading that one, I guess I was wondering to myself, have you run into hurdles in the art community? I mean, we’ve talked a little bit, obviously about some of the hurdles you’ve run into as a Black woman, not just through art, but everyday existence as an American. Have you run into hurdles to be taken seriously because you come from the South? Like, is that a hurdle for the art world?
Ashley M. Jones: How do I want to answer this? So I think I’ll say most people are just surprised that I want to be in Alabama. That’s been like the most frequent question is, oh, so when are you leaving? When are you going to like, go get a college job? Why are you teaching at a high school? Are you okay down there? You know, those sorts of questions.
And I don’t know that I’ve had someone out right, you know, say like, oh, you’re from the South. You’re not a real poet. But you just kind of see it in the way the industry is, you know. Growing up in Birmingham, knowing that I wanted to be a writer, I always had this sense that I had to leave here to be a real writer.
And that sense, I think is changing, thanks to places like Hub City. And part of the reason why I applied to guest edit Poetry Magazine was because of that whole movement as well. To assert, you know, Alabamians specifically, Southerners generally, but Alabamians specifically have something very important to offer and we’ve been offering it for a long, long time. But nobody has really stopped to listen to us. Um, so that’s maybe the only hurdle. I think I definitely haven’t been shunned because of my Alabamaness, but just mostly a lot of questions. Like this poem comes from a lot of different experiences, but one is, you know, going on tour for my books and I don’t have a Southern accent.
I don’t think I have a Southern accent anyway, which I used to be so proud of, but now it’s like, ah, I wish I had, you know, something, right? Yeah. I mean, cause you, you want to be cool. Like the other Alabama people who sound like so awesome and Southern. Um, but yeah, people who didn’t know where I was from and then I would say, oh, I’m from Alabama.
They’re like, “oh, wow. Well are you all right down there? How are things down there?” As if you know, their state is somehow perfect and has reached, you know, this perfect non-racist moment. And so I found myself having to explain at all these tour stops, “you know, your state is racist too? The whole country is racist.”
Alabama is in the United States. It is a state in this country, you know. So, yeah, that’s probably the only frustrating thing that I’ve encountered.
John Hammontree: You make it clear, you know, that a lot of the American economy and the existence of America, both before the Civil War and after is rooted in the way that white Alabamians treated black Alabamians, the economy was built on the slave trade and the cotton trade and things like that.
What is it that made you decide you wanted to build your career in Birmingham? I mean, I think some people with your talent would have gone to kind of these established literary meccas, like New York City or San Francisco or Oakland or Atlanta, or places like that. What is it that keeps you rooted here?
Ashley M. Jones: A few things, I think. First of all, my family is here. And I did live away from home for three years when I went to graduate school. I lived in Miami, which is another planet, as we know. It’s not this planet at all. And that was really hard. Like I was very depressed and super homesick. And I mean, that definitely was necessary for me to be able to write my first book, to feel that and to realize how much I really loved being near my family and being in Alabama. So my family is one. Second, I really love the South. Everywhere I’ve gone in the United States has been cool, but it’s just not as good to me as the South. There’s a certain feeling, a certain soul tie, I guess, to being in the South. And people who aren’t from here who come, friends of mine who’ve come are like, “oh yeah, it does feel different here.”
And being a Black person, especially, you can feel the spirits of your ancestors who worked the land, who died, who marched, all of that, is here. And especially in Birmingham, I would say. You know, I feel like I grew up feeling something in the air and I didn’t really know what it was, but now I know, like it’s all these people who have done all these things here to make it possible for me to walk down the street, to teach in a school, to teach white children, teach Black children, whatever. So that keeps me here as well.
And then also, like, I’ve always been sort of against the grain. Again, I don’t want to sound a certain way, but I’ve always been like a loner in a way. And I don’t really like the crowd, you know. I’ve never liked the crowd. People have never been able to get me with peer pressure, which was hilarious in high school. People would try to, like, get me to do all these things that I didn’t need to do. And I was like, no. I’m not doing it. And that’s kind of carried over in the art world too. I see the way that the establishment has told us we have to live our lives and have our careers. Like you have to move to New York, LA you know, all those places that you mentioned. You have to teach at a certain kind of institution. You have to XYZ.
And I was just like, you know, I want to do this a different way. So many people I admire did things a different way, you know, because they had to. All these black writers who I’ve admired for so long, they didn’t necessarily get to go that path, because they weren’t allowed to. They made a new path. And in many ways that new path is what instructed me, as a young person, to believe in myself.
And so I thought, well, I’m going to do it too. I don’t have to do this thing that everyone tells me that I must do. Especially being a Southerner. You don’t think they’re going to take you seriously anyway, unless you denounce your Southerness. So, you know, I just planted myself here and I really love working with high school students.
I mean, now I am also teaching at an MFA program, but my heart isalways going to be with these young people who are just discovering their voice and. So, yeah, that’s why I’m here. And it’s cheaper to live here. Let’s be honest.
John Hammontree: You know, you talked about being a loner, but you’re also building this infrastructure in Birmingham and in Alabama.
I mean, obviously with, with the high school students and things like that. But you’re the founding director of the Magic City Poetry festival. you’re the co-director of PEN Birmingham, just for our audience who may not necessarily know what PEN is, what is that?
Ashley M. Jones: PEN America is an organization that has been working in free expression for many, many years.
And basically what that means is that they fight for the rights of writers. They do a lot of work in freeing writers from imprisonment all across the world. And even here, you know, we had that interesting moment with the 45th president where journalism was being attacked at every turn. And they also do work with literary arts. So with books, writers, all that kind of stuff. And so what they’ve done recently, the reason that they have a chapter here in Birmingham is because they started the PEN Across America program to get some of those resources and to put a spotlight on places that aren’t those coastal cities that are so often spotlighted.
So they’re based in New York and also in LA and DC, I believe. But now there’s chapters all across the nation.
John Hammontree: When people like me, who aren’t necessarily well-versed in the poetry world, think of poetry communities, you think of people reading on stage in New York in Harlem and in Greenwich village and places like that. You don’t necessarily think of that as being part of the scene in Birmingham or cities of Birmingham size in the South.
What does it mean to build that community and to build that infrastructure? Why is that important for a city like ours?
Ashley M. Jones: Well, we have so much to offer. I think I always tell people Birmingham and maybe the whole state of Alabama has this really intense relationship with self hatred. You know, I think we’re almost raised to be ashamed of where we’re from. Like all of us at ASFA, where I went to high school and where I teach now, we all would just be like, “oh, I can’t wait to get outta here. And this place is terrible.” You know, it’s like that’s a part of your upbringing. And I feel like we reflect that even now, you know, in the way that we don’t necessarily care for each other. We don’t necessarily imagine ourselves as one of those cities.
But when you think about it, Birmingham is the reason for so much change that has happened in our country. So many incredible thinkers come from here. All the good food is here, you know? And so for me building this community is just what we’ve deserved all along. And there’s of course been so many people who have worked hard in Birmingham and across the state to keep some literary programming going over the years, I’m just coming in and trying to do my part.
You know, I’m certainly not the first. I won’t be the last to do anything literary at all. And I’m eternally grateful to all those people who’ve done open mic nights. Who’ve created non-profits and other organizations across our state. But I truly feel like now is a great time.
There’s so many of us who have returned to Birmingham. It’s a great time for us to really stick to it and band together and finally recognize that we are worth everything in Birmingham. We’re not some sort of red headed stepchild. I don’t know if that’s still a term that we can use.
Hopefully that’s not offensive to people who are red-headed. We love redheads and stepchildren. Um, but no, Birmingham is not some sort of like discarded thing and it’s not just something in a history book. And I think we need to like really realize that. And so for me, part of that is bringing poetry and poets together.
Also, I think poetry can heal people in a way that they don’t really recognize. Um, and so for me, getting poetry to the people, so to speak, it’s just a part of healing. It’s a part of the reparations process to repair people from like a soul level, because that’s what poetry does. So hopefully that’s happening too.
John Hammontree: We’ve talked a little bit about the reparations of your experience as a Black person in Alabama, but you also talk a lot about the indignities and experiences of being a woman in Alabama. And in America. You talk about your body and male gaze and struggles with eating and things like that.
And there’s a poem that you wrote that kind of addresses both topics. And also the conversation that we’ve been having about the South. “I Cannot talk About the South Without Talking About Black Women.” And I wondered if you would read just one more poem for us.
Ashley M. Jones: I Cannot Talk About The South Without Talking About Black Women
a golden shovel after Lucille Clifton
My grandmothers made America, made
the fibers that made us warm, made us invincible—heroines.
To tell you who they are, I must start with who they are not: servants, kitchen-bound mammies, silently obedient wives—
we can’t, in our modern comforts, imagine the survival they learned
was theirs to claim, can’t hold the
the light they burned through this colonial darkness, what tricks this nation, this American South pulled, minute by minute, to
my grandmothers convinced: the
body you’re in is not enough, your race
and your gender work together
to mark you less, to mark you takeable, but
what they didn’t know was that my grandmothers still had an unmovable strength, enough to
build a bridge from here to Heaven. I know when I leave this broken earth I’ll find them there, sweetening every hour.
My grandmothers raised a generation of American men. There is no other way to
say this. Look at any Southern family and you’ll find,
somewhere, in a past most will not claim, a Black woman. These men who call themselves bootstrapping and self-made, somewhere there’s a Black woman and
her unthanked hands who lifted them to where they are now.
My father tells a story of the sons of his grandmother’s employers. How they, instead of the pension she was promised, decided to give her a damned
old tire. An old suitcase, dusty in the yard. What
thanks is this for the years she raised that family, for the care they
cannot forget? My father could never forgive
those men, their Southern tradition. Their American tradition. Even
now, they tell us Black women are going to save this whole nationwithvotesormagicorourstyletakenandrenamed. Butthisisnolongerthelandofmassas and mammies, and we are only superheroines for our own daughters and sons—
my grandmothers did not give their lives
for me to keep nursing this country, to keep shucking and jiving in
a bizarro American Dream—
my grandmothers are worth more than this corrupt remembering. Now, there is no room for the
Dixieland lie: we
no longer hold these truths you made
us accept. Under God, yes. We hear Him singing a song of powerful love
despite the United Hate of America.
Grandmothers, women made
of salt and spirit, you are faith, continuous. Continue us— raise us to be heroes and heroines,
to tell this country that we are not
mules, not beasts. You, an army of workers and wives—
fears and woes in your indestructible, ever-present ladyness—
the blood you passed down to us is all we will ever need to save
John Hammontree: It did kind of become a meme there for a while. You know,” Southern Black women are going to save America,” whether it was the 2017 special election in Alabama or the Georgia presidential election and Senate race. And I don’t know if this poem was written specifically to address that, but obviously you do address it in passing. And yet, you know, despite quote unquote, saving America over and over and over and over, you know, some of the most overlooked people in America are Southern Black women.
What was going through your mind as you were writing this pace?
Ashley M. Jones: Well, first of all, I think it’s always so funny when people say that Black women are saving the nation or whatever we’re saving. When we’re really just like making sure there’s some fertile soil for our children. You know, it’s not about anybody else, but our people.
What was I thinking about writing this poem? It’s also funny, the story of this poem, I, um, was commissioned by Garden & Gun magazine, which is hilarious, actually. I’ve never read the magazine or I hadn’t before I was asked. And it doesn’t really seem like my aesthetic, you know, like, I mean, you know. So when they reached out to me, I was like, whoa, like, do y’all know what I write? Like, what is this? And so it turned out, they were partnering with Harper Collins to do a book called Southern Women, which has all these essays and interviews from women from the South.
And they wanted me to write a poem that would open the book. So I was like, “Cool. I guess that’s nice of you to want me to do it.” And they said, “yeah, so just answer the question what does it mean to be a Southern woman?” And so I said, “well, just to recap, you know what I write about. You know it’s probably going to be about Black people, is that going to be fine with y’all?” And they said, “yeah, we love your work. You know, do whatever you feel. That sounds great.” And it was the biggest amount of money I’d ever made on a single poem. It’s probably like rude to talk about that, but I like to be as transparent as I can be. I was dumbfounded to see what they wanted to pay me to write this poem.
And I said, cool, I’m going to call in my grandmothers for this, spiritually cause they have all passed on. And I’m going to talk about the real. When I think about being a Southern woman, I think about my grandmother who picked cotton and who raised kids who were hers and who weren’t hers. I think about my grandmother who survived domestic abuse by her husband. And her 12 children, including my dad, who had to survive in that situation as well.
I think about how, you know, I, as a Black woman, I haven’t had to do those things my grandmothers did, but there’s so much labor that Black women do that is always unseen. You know, this saving that istalked about. Whether it’s voting and making sure things happen, or it’s showing up to the function as the best dressed person there and providing joy for people. There’s so much that we do.
And so I just wanted to enumerate that. And I used a form called the Golden Shovel, which was invented by Terrance Hayes, who was a living poet. And in that form, you take a poem that already exists in his case, he took, “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks, and the poem that you write in the Golden Shovel, that original post exists along the right margin. So if you read down the right margin, it’s the entirety of whatever your origin poem was. So you’re kind of bringing somebody along with you to kind of help you tell a certain story. And so I chose the poem, “Black Women” by my favorite poet, Lucille Clifton. And that poem was one of the first poems I had read that explained my experience as a Black woman so eloquently. In the poem, she says that we were made heroines, not wives. and we hid our ladyness to save our lives and she’s referencing, you know, slavery where Black women had to find ways to guard against rape by their masters and all sorts of abuse while still sort of holding families together, being there for Black men who grew to, in many cases, resent them for various reasons.
And to sort of hide our softness as protection, but also as a way to just make it through that experience. And again, although I am not on anyone’s field, you know, picking anything. Um, there are moments where I felt like I have had to hide all of those tender parts of myself, because for one, nobody expects it to exist. People think that we’re either just always sassy or always mad or always happy, always singing, always dancing, whatever. So they don’t always allow for the moments when we have to cry or when we just need somebody to say, ” you’re doing great.” And then even from a physical standpoint, our bodies are not always seen as what they actually are.
Thinking back to, you know, school dress code. Um, some of us who are Black, you know, have shapely thighs or whatever. So if we wear a pair of shorts, it’s seen as sexualized immediately, but if our white counterparts wear them, it’s just an innocent pair of shorts. Or even now as an adult, people looking at my body in a particular way. It’s already seen as an object.
And that’s not to say that other women don’t have this experience. I’m just saying there is an intersectionality here. The experience of being a Black woman and having a body is different than being a white woman and having a body. Yes, we are both oppressed and objectified in horrible ways, but there are additional things that come with being Black and being objectified. There’s a whole history that we are contending with and it goes all the way back to slavery. Thinking about somebody like Sally Hemings. There’s just a lot that goes into it. So this poem is an attempt to talk about all of that. And even to bring in some of the personal stories, like the one that I referenced from my dad and his grandmother, which I just couldn’t believe that, really, they drove up and they had a tire and a suitcase.
John Hammontree: Yeah, that’s dumbfounding. You have a poem about Sally Hemings in “Magic City Gospel,” I think. So, anybody listening can go check that one out, too.
I’m curious. You know, what the feedback was from the folks over at “Garden & Gun” or from any of the readers. Did you get any feedback that you weren’t expecting?
Ashley M. Jones: Yes, on both sides of that coin. So they loved it. The editors loved it. And it is in the beginning of the book, if you open “Southern Women,” there’s my poem, you know, right in the front, which I was very excited about because I think like Oprah is interviewed in that book. And like I’ve never met Oprah, but just to sort of touch the hem of Oprah’s garment, that’s good for me. Um, so, and if Oprah is out there somewhere, I would love to actually meet you, you know, and appear on your… not the couch anymore. Cause there’s no Oprah Winfrey show, but whatever she does now. The little conversations, that’d be great. But yeah, so that was good feedback.
But, interestingly, last year on International Women’s Day, Garden & Gun asked me to do an Instagram reading of my poem. And so I did it. And, you know, in my little preamble I described it’s Women’s Day and I celebrate Black women today and all the things that we do and what we’ve endured, et cetera, et cetera.
And so it gets posted and of course, they had to turn off the comments, I think, because people started saying, “oh my gosh, why are we always talking about Black women? It’s all women. We need to stop this, you know, racist, whatever, whatever, you know, I’m tired of Black…” And all this other stuff. So I got that and I really didn’t see that coming because I just, you know, if Garden & Gun was cool with it, like, what are y’all talking about? You know?
John Hammontree: Yeah. The all women matter response, I guess.
Ashley M. Jones: Right. Like I never said, I hate every other woman. I just said I’m Black and I’m celebrating my women right now. It’s International Women’s Day that includes us.
John Hammontree: You’ve obviously had a very significant year professionally. What else is on the horizon for you?
What are your ambitions next? What do you hope to grow this into?
Ashley M. Jones: My first ambition is just to make it through this year and the next year after this pandemic. That’s not a professional goal, exactly. But it’s top on the list. Just survive. But professionally speaking, I do want to branch out. I’m starting to write essays now, which is like weird and new.
I mean, I’ve done it before, like for school, but I’m doing it in earnest, I guess, as a professional writer. So I’m hoping to write a memoir. I’ve got some essays already in circulation and people seem to like them okay. So I’ll keep doing that. And I’m hoping to write more about craft, which is something I really never thought I would do because I’m very like… I’m all about accessibility. I’ll say it that way. I really have always hated when things are difficult to understand and like needlessly complicated in the academic sphere. And that goes for poems themselves, but also the criticism of the work. And I always have to disclaim, like I know how to read difficult stuff. It’s not that I’m like somehow unable to do it.
I have degrees, you know, for all those people who are like, “oh, you just don’t know enough.” I know plenty. I just don’t believe in the patriarchal system of academia, which forces you to use all this gatekeeping terminology and whatever else to edge people out of knowledge or the discussion of art and culture.
I don’t believe in that. So I’m hoping that when I write about craft, it’s something that’s accessible to everybody. And interesting. We just need to bring interest back into our criticism, I think, because nobody’s trying to be bored, you know, reading about poetry. So yeah, so that’s what I hope to do. And hopefully I can write some more poetry eventually.
And maybe like win some awards. I really want to get a Pulitzer. I’ve had this on my list since I was like four to get a Pulitzer prize, to win a Nobel peace prize for Literature or to be Poet Laureate of my state. Check. And, uh, the country. So those are my goals.
John Hammontree: Those are good goals. I hope they happen for you. One last question, as we wrap up, you referenced some of your literary inspirations before in our conversation, but if you had to recommend two other Southern poets, who would you recommend?
Ashley M. Jones: So first I would reference the poet, Jacqueline Tremble, who is a living poet. And she teaches at Alabama State University in Montgomery. And she has one book out right now called “American Happiness,” which if you liked any of my books, hasten to her book, please. Please get there as soon as you possibly can, because it’s a fantastic book.
And she has another book coming out in 2022 called “How to Survive the Apocalypse.” And I’ve already seen some of those poems. I was fortunate to be able to publish them in the July/ August issue of Poetry Magazine, which has a lot of Southern writers in it, actually. So that’s one to pick up if you want to read Alabama writers specifically, there’s quite a few in there. So I would say her. And then I would also say my sister, Monique Jones, who is a journalist by day and writer, I guess, by also day, not really by night. But she has a book called “The Book of Awesome Black Americans, which came outlast year, I believe. Time is non-existent to me so if I mess up dates, like, I’m sorry, everybody. It’s all cyclical anyway. So anyway, her book is a non-fiction book and it’s a great resource for anyone. I mean, I would say if you’re a teacher, definitely get it. If you’re looking to decolonize your syllabus. Because in that book, she tells the history of Black people in America, through all these different people who have impacted culture and who have invented things, who’ve written things, who’ve done everything. And so it’s a great tool for your students if they’re like, “oh, what did Black people do in America?” She lays it all out very simply. And accessibly, as I said before. So I would say her, and, and not only that book of hers, her writing, she writes entertainment journalism, and she has a website where she does it as well.
So just look up Monique L. Jones. And you’ll find all of her writings, where she talks about culture and race and how that permeates our entertainment as well.