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

    By Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

    for Mister Weaver

    1. Black Warrior speaks

    The night before they came,
    I walked on my river. I had strange
    dreams: bloody shouts to the sun,
    bodies in the trees, twirling legless.
    I sang until morning. I sang, and the white
    ones were here sniffing an empty breast.
    They are here but I cannot die.
    My tribe is strong behind our
    drums and sliced trees.
    We are strong against these whites
    with sticks like dirty breath, these
    silly children snatching toys.
    They do not see me.
    My tongue is strong and hides me.
    I cannot die. They do not see me
    walking on my river, my teeth biting
    at early chains. They only
    know they choke on my songs.

    2. DeSoto speaks

    I have seen him before all
    over the world. This Indian,
    this Tuscaloosa, this red man
    with the black name dares
    to think he will defeat me
    and my tribe. Who is he to imagine
    he will kill me with his songs,
    sacred or commonplace?
    Who is he to be sure that his spirits
    will hear, float down this river,
    sting the skin of slaves?
    I am the one who cries the music
    of God, and Tuscaloosa is mine.
    He cannot live past my morning
    into night. I want his seed to die
    in this water. I want his mouth
    wounded with slime.

    I will push him into that river,
    this warrior of a cracked womb.
    His song will never be earth or flesh.


    Tuscaloosa sleeps in the water
    stirs the silt of blues
    makes music of ashes
    feeds death clotted anger

    Tuscaloosa sleeps in the water
    sucks gore from his lungs
    strips the green crucifix
    roars the gumbo scream


    Trane's Alabama
    a Creole agony
    blood slung through air
    a throat-filled epiphany
    death licking madness
    an elegy for mud


    This is the river of no longer.
    Here by the side of the Black Warrior,
    lights are woven through branches.
    Water level signs hang from the trees:
    1919 1857 1913 1989 and on.
    A memory of what is no longer
    painful. From year to year
    the levels of the water climb
    higher than before, and in the spring
    the people of the town visit
    mounds filled with bones.
    They buy feathers and skin painted
    bright colors, or whistles drilled
    with holes that make sounds
    of animals unnecessary and small.

    No one talks of the year he died.
    Tuscaloosa is a river, a place
    where quiet blood is shed.
    Tuscaloosa is a river, signs
    nailed to trees. We do not speak
    in old tongues. We blow pretty
    noises through holes.


    This is not the river, so long,
    so wide, Hayden's water, baptism
    of survival. The river that Mama
    and I crossed over one summer,
    crossed over history's concrete
    back, the river that made her ask,
    Do you think we should pray I can't
    See the shore this is the river the slaves
    Had to cross oh God I can't see
    The shore do you think we should pray?

    This is not Jordan, only the river
    DeSoto tossed three hundred souls into,
    watched the water grow tall
    as they squirmed like dancing
    stones, watched the water dark
    and struggling rise and rise,
    bubbles blowing from the children's
    mouths, mother's wet chants
    swallowed by dirt.
    This is not Jordan.
    There is not milk and honey
    waiting on the other side, only
    dead stones flat and smooth.
    This is not Jordan, only simple water
    muddied from a season of rain.
    This is not Jordan, but I have
    prayed at this shore anyway.


    feathered with spirit
    red libation on the tongue
    claws mystery into earth
    scatters song on this river

    prayer of ancient thirst
    wind through clench fist
    claws mystery into earth
    scatters song on this river

    holy man swept into light
    gnarled root of God
    claws mystery into earth
    scatters song on this river


    dark arms cup the blade
    blue spit in the scripture's eye
    do not walk across my water
    do this in remembrance of me


    Published: 23 September 2005
    © 2005 Honorée Fanonne Jeffers and Southern Spaces