Jackie Nelson

Jackie Nelson, English teacher at Central High School in Louisville, speaks during a panel discussion Thursday through the Jeffersonville Free Public Library on the importance and weight of African American poetry.

JEFFERSONVILLE — The first of a two-part series through the Jeffersonville Township Free Public Library Thursday fostered conversations on poetry as an integral part of the Black experience, history and memory.

“Lift Every Voice: A Celebration of African American Poetry,” was brought to the library through a grant from the Library of America. This first virtual event was moderated by David Anderson, an African American literary scholar who teaches at the University of Louisville, and included discussion with Frank X. Walker, an award-winning poet and author of the 2020 book “Masked Man, Black,” and Jackie Nelson, an activist and English teacher at Central High School in Louisville and National Writing Project scholar.

The group’s discussion centered partly around the anthology “African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song,” which includes 250 poets from the colonial period to the present. The book includes the birth of African American poetry, with work by Phyllis Wheatley who was 13 years old and a slave when in 1773 she published her first poem in the Newport Mercury, “and ultimately became one of the leading poets of the American Revolution,” Anderson said.

“In a sense, African American poetry has...had kind of a double burden. It has not only attempted to give voice to the Black experience and Black history, but often African American writers have been not only sort of exemplary members of the community, they’ve had to speak on behalf of the community, they’ve had to convey what the community was capable of.”

This is what Nelson said she reminds her high school students — especially the younger ones — that their voices have value.

“Their experience is real, it matters,” she said, adding that if others hadn’t spoken out through poetry or otherwise, “then we couldn’t connect.”

Anderson gave the example of a common school assignment for a student to find their family history.

“But in my family history you hit a wall and you become reminded of the erasure of people, the lack of documents,” he said. “...so much that is left to oral tradition and so much that is left for people to imagine and conceive and to imagine what was there.”

The moderator read Kevin Young’s “Money Road,” which brings forth emotion and images of the 1955 brutal murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black teenager accused of in some way offending a White female grocery clerk.

”...A quiet snow globe of pain I want to shake...While the flakes fall like ash we race the train to reach the place where Emmett Till whistled or smiled or did nothing...”

Till, from Chicago, was visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi when Carolyn Bryant, the grocery clerk, reported some type of exchange with the teen. Several days later, her husband and his half-brother dragged Till out of his family’s home, beat and shot him and threw his body in the Tallahatchie River. At trial they were found not guilty.

When Till’s body was recovered several days later, he was unrecognizable and identified only by the insignia ring his mother had given him before the trip. Still despite the horror, Mamie Till insisted on an open casket to show the world what had happened to her son “because there is no way I could describe this. And I needed somebody to help me tell what it was like.”

“It’s horrifying, it’s terrifying and insisting that this young teenager not be erased really made what happened to Emmett Till really a key part of the Civil Rights movement,” Anderson said. “He became a martyr and it was that insistence on remembering.”

Walker said when he has introduced the poem and its story to students “they were stunned that they hadn’t heard of him.” Walker said the story brings to mind to the younger people the 2012 shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

He added that tackling this topic in poetry is “really bold and brave.”

“It’s easy to write beautiful poems about trees and flowers,” he said. “There’s no risk there.”

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