Kevin Young's BROWN
BROWN is divided in two parts, Home and Field Recordings. Then divided further into sections:
- The A Train
- On The Atchinson, Topeka + The Santa Fe
- Night Train, and
- The Crescent Limited.
BROWN is Young remembering, notating and sharing personal history. African American history. They are one and the same for him and too often in contrast with the history we are still being taught in America. This collection as a whole is a refutation of erasure. Young combats erasure with the telling of these memories retained alone or en masse. Young does not allow his memories to be condemned. His words are,
“…the bucket/ of water tossed / on the cries of the crowd / turns like tears to confetti.”
The poem “History” is indicative of the spirit/purpose I felt within BROWN- the need to record moments. This memory is set in a high school history class Young attended, in a classroom students are still sitting in, in present day Topeka. In Young’s time, Mr. W taught in that room. He represented a,
“Pillar of my high school, Mr. W / made class by seven a.m., filling / his blackboards with white, using notes / decades old…”
Mr. W was a man denied the opportunity to fight in two wars, so he began his own campaign of disinformation,
“Listen to what I’m telling you, he’d say, / synthesize, don’t record.” It would be too simple to focus on who Mr. W was, “…Who once / drove 45 on the highway he told us / cause Nixon asked…”
but Young’s work speaks on micro and macro levels.
Mr. W not being fully identified with a surname can be taken as a slight at his position, an indication of the breakdown or refusal of social contracting implicit in a classroom. The anonymity of Mr. W serves a function. Mr. W could stand for Mr. White, Mr. Warmonger, Mr. Way-back-when, or Mr. Wrong. An exactness of Mr. W would be too specific and deter from the uniformity of teaching practices and curricula experienced in the poem.
Mr. W dies before the conclusion of the school year. Aware of his diminishing health and frailty,
“Mr. W spent nights transcribing / to transparencies words / water could wipe away,”
ensuring his version of history lessons continued to be taught to future generations of students. His return after summer break compared to “Terminator” or General Douglas MacArthur- a victory for some a defeat for others.
Mr. W is humanized when it is revealed through a personal anecdote that his first name is Wayne. Before his death, he addresses his class,
“You’re my kids, / he’d tell us, we built or broke / his heart.”
I wrongfully took this as a turn in the poem, but the fact of the matter is I am assuming a great deal about the character of Mr. Wayne W and I shouldn’t be. At the time, Mr. W was performing his job as an educator. His race is not explicitly addressed just his disdain for, “the boom / boom boom of the radios black kids wore,” and racist imitation of, “a Chinaman on the rail. / Ah, so”.
The reality is, the loss of Mr. W did not stop the erasure Young observed in the classroom that year, “Mr. W’s words, unchanged, awaited / us coloreds & women libbers.” Mr. W was Mr. Whoever. Young’s memory of Mr. W’s history lesson becomes anecdotal and turns allegorical,
“We spent the Sixties/ minus Malcolm X, or Watts, / barely a March on Washington— “
As I finished reading the poem, an image of, “… faint bright / of flickering fluorescent lights.” appeared in my mind, and I remember all the schools I attended, the hallways and classrooms full of modern gaslights.
During your virtual visit peruse “African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song” a literary landmark, this single indispensable volume presents the biggest and best anthology of black poetry yet to be published, gathering 250 poets from the colonial period to the present. [Library of America | September 2020 | Hardcover]