An interdisciplinary journal about regions, places, and cultures of the US South and their global connections
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  • Race

    Sometimes I think about Great-Uncle Paul who left Tuskegee,
    Alabama to become a forester in Oregon and in so doing
    became fundamentally white for the rest of his life, except
    when he traveled without his white wife to visit his siblings —
    now in New York, now in Harlem, USA — just as pale-skinned,
    as straight-haired, as blue-eyed as Paul, and black. Paul never told anyone
    he was white, he just didn't say that he was black, and who could imagine
    an Oregon forester in 1930 as anything other than white?
    The siblings in Harlem each morning ensured
    no one confused them for anything other than what they were, black.
    They were black! Brown-skinned spouses reduced confusion.
    Many others have told, and not told, this tale.
    When Paul came East alone he was as they were, their brother.

    The poet invents heroic moments where the pale black ancestor stands up
    on behalf of the race. The poet imagines Great-Uncle Paul
    in cool, sagey groves counting rings in redwood trunks,
    imagines pencil markings in a ledger book, classifications,
    imagines a sidelong look from an ivory spouse who is learning
    her husband's caesuras. She can see silent spaces
    but not what they signify, graphite markings in a forester's code.

    Many others have told, and not told, this tale.
    The one time Great-Uncle Paul brought his wife to New York
    he asked his siblings not to bring their spouses,
    and that is where the story ends: ivory siblings who would not
    see their brother without their telltale spouses.
    What a strange thing is "race," and family, stranger still.
    Here a poem tells a story, a story about race.


    Published in Antebellum Dream Book (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2001).

    Published: 10 December 2009
    © 2009 Elizabeth Alexander and Southern Spaces