A stunning account of racism, mob violence, and cultural responsibility as rendered by the poet Martha Collins
the victim hanged, though not on a tree, this
was not the country, they used a steel arch
with electric lights, and later a lamppost, this
was a modern event, the trees were not involved.
from "Blue Front"
Martha Collins's father, as a five-year-old, sold fruit outside the Blue Front Restaurant in Cairo, Illinois, in 1909. What he witnessed there, with 10,000 participants, is shocking.
In Blue Front, Collins describes the brutal lynching of a black man and, as an afterthought, a white man, both of them left to the mercilessness of the spectators. The poems patch together an arresting array of evidencenewspaper articles, census data, legal history, postcards, photographs, and Collins's speculations about her father's own experience. The resulting work, part lyric and part narrative, is a bold investigation into hate, mob mentality, culpability, and what it means to be white in a country still haunted by its violently racist history.
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About the Author
Martha Collins is the author of four previous poetry collections, including Some Things Words Can Do, and co-translator of two volumes of poetry from the Vietnamese. She teaches at Oberlin College and lives in Oberlin, Ohio, and Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Read an Excerpt
By Martha Collins
Graywolf PressCopyright © 2006 Martha Collins
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHe was five. He sold fruit on the street in front He sold fruit. People came He made change came to see him make change * * * in front of the restaurant that faced the tracks that ran by the river one of the rivers a block from the street and up to the double arch where in 1909 was it the blue of the was it the river front of the blue of * * * the rivers make a V where they meet a point the rivers flow together but not at once two colors blue and brown meet make a line * * * Boats came from the north they came from the south Trains came from the south they came from the north Boats came on the blue Ohio they came on the brown Mississippi Boats came on the brown they changed for the blue Trains crossed that river people changed for the north the south People changed in the middle of the river they changed cars In the middle of the river they changed colors made a line * * * the street was Commercial Dowling Pressing Saloon Drugstore Opera House Three States Buggy Champion Tools Dowling Pressing Club was where his uncle's Blue Front Restaurant he was five couldn't look out the same window couldn't read the same books laundry couldn't be washed in the same machines I believe theinstitution noble I believe it God's water came from the same source but couldn't be drunk from the same fountains couldn't be flushed a town where people lived together black and white even there, where they changed cars when they saw the invisible line on that river saw it as clear as the line between the two rivers the failure of civil authorities to maintain law and order makes couldn't be washed even sixty years later when a man was found the same story hanged the same town hanged but this time hanged in the city jail but this fountain filled with blood that washes white track might have been from the other side but here the other side was a river on both sides trains ran if you started out on the wrong if you fell off if you lost you might not cross a visible line but nevertheless wherever you were there were ways to find to put for example dogs to follow a path beaten by or as by an animal say a scent to make to move quickly in order to stop in his own who might not cover to stay on the right no question of getting off to follow into the house the fields the woods by whatever means a horse a hijacked train some wagons to follow the indisputable evidence down yes there was also the other railroad the underground railroad that ran on the water around the town around the roads yes this was the place where Huck and Jim should have changed rivers brown to blue yes this was the land of Lincoln half a state from the village where he the city where he the courts and the circuit yes this was the north it meant freedom and there were people no doubt in the town who yes of course but there was also the other railroad the railroad talked about even less the reverse underground railroad with its bounty its tickets back to the south and it is also true that further north in that city of Lincoln a year before two others were also with even less reason they had merely tried to protect their homes a failure of civil order that caused a riot that led to the NAACP and moved a woman Ida B. Wells-Barnett who meant to see that the law Springfield where his cousin lived she was just his age they are back to back in a studio portrait white bow in her hair circa 1909 where in 1908 a black was accused of killing a white another black of raping a white where the Lincoln home the Lincoln tomb the Lincoln depot the Lincoln pew are tourist attractions monuments to the martyred Illinois man who freed the slaves where in 1908 a mob finding the prisoners gone burned the transporting car destroyed 24 black businesses 40 black homes killed 2 successful blacks and also accidentally 4 whites where he would later take his wife and child to visit the cousin the Lincoln home the Lincoln tomb where in 1908 events occurred that led a 1909 Cairo paper to say its citizens were not moved by race prejudice, nor did they permit themselves to be led into wanton destruction of property, or the taking of innocent lives, as in Springfield was five he was my father he sold fruit on the street when I was five I had a wagon went to school in a checked dress he had a wagon a sailor suit I had a checked blanket for naps I had not seen what he had seen something His friend was Margaret Rust. She had a dog named Spot. He had a wagon. They played. * * * on Commercial one block in from Ohio six blocks up the arch lit bright with lights someone must have held him up his uncle his father's shoulders so he could see * * * A girl he could have known found the woman. Later they could have gone to the same school. She was three. Or she was seven. He was five. * * * Auntie Fay was his friend a lady he said a lady her skin was black but her heart was white she wrote of herself in the Testament she gave him she was washed in the blood of the lamb * * * fourteen years later rode around town dressed in a white sheet just made noise he said made noise clothes were washed baskets wooden pins hung on lines strung from tree to tree white for under white for sleep sheets empty sleeves above where heads bread was baked grain corn white and cakes his mother's thirteen-egg-white angel clothes were washed cloths or was it clothes with blood scrubbed baskets napkins white bread ribs and chicken deviled eggs cakes for these occasions celebrations often food too late this time for baskets not for liquor all saloons stayed open in and out and children tucked into bed into white sheets Birmingham Because after I'd seen the church where it was bombed where the four bodies were stacked on top of each other said Josephine Marshall Tuskegee '33 she saw nothing but bloody sheets laundry couldn't be washed in the same machines and read about this City of Churches this Magic City this Bombingham where Shuttlesworth's church and house had been bombed where Chambliss before that Sunday had bombed homes for twenty years where because of Brown the Klan castrated a man who'd done nothing not even looked at a white woman in '57 couldn't read a book about black and white rabbits because after I'd seen the two fountains the replicated streetcar classroom courtroom the actual door of that Birmingham Jail cell and followed the tapes of the sit-ins the kneel-ins the marches the students the children the hoses the dogs and listened again to the famous speech couldn't be sworn in on the same Bible the museum led to a hall they called it Procession Hall where simply to walk was to join the life-sized marchers because I had sat in a classroom had only read the papers when it happened Olive Branch Horseshoe Lake Turn on Promised Land Road for Public Hunting Future City Welcome to Cairo káy-roe not ký-roe but once the queen of this Little Egypt these rivers its Nile * * * knew the Seventh Street house was gone knew the Blue Front Restaurant was gone forgot the downtown was almost closed down nineteenth-century buildings that looked like the buildings he knew like the Blue Front looked except that except for a few there was nothing inside * * * ducks and geese from Horseshoe Lake from the rivers catfish crawfish * * * no one walked or drove on Commercial nothing was open except for a single store a saloon and nothing was new except at the Eighth Street intersection where once two electric steel arches had crossed in the center bright with lights and now in the same center a clock rising like a statue from a circular pedestal made of donor-named bricks and draped with a chain and on the street old-fashioned streetlamps and one block up coming off the highway a wrought-iron sign arching over the street Historic Downtown Cairo lived with his mother's Uncle Jim who owned the Blue Front with Uncle Guy who was both uncle and cousin her mother's uncle married her father's sister Guy's Blue Front Restaurant and Lunch Room First Class Meals Nicely Furnished Rooms Travelers Lunches Put Up Day and Night All the Delicacies of the Season the uncles had come with their widowed mother to Cairo Gate to the South and Southwest best shipping facilities railway tonnage river tonnage five lines of railway with tiled floors and tin ceilings white tablecloths white napkins in glasses wooden chairs stools at the lunch counter one of 21 restaurants (10 white and 11 colored) and 7 newsstands his father worked in the kitchen and he sold fruit in front of the Blue Front four doors down from the depot to travelers he was five he could make change two weeks before it happened: President Taft two years before: President Roosevelt forty years before: President Grant who had earlier come as General Grant to launch the Union troops to the south that many residents hoped would win having kin perhaps across one of the rivers who had perhaps slaves postcards of what occurred later were sent to Kentucky near the end of the same century: President Clinton who came when downtown was almost shut down whose bus was surrounded by red white and blue like the bunting the living flag of 600 children surrounding President Taft whom thousands came to town to see in October 1909 not to mention Dickens and Trollope and the TV show Real People this was long after hundreds or was it thousands came to make altogether 10,000 including children on parents' shoulders who saw what occurred in November 1909 lynch not as in pin, the kind that keeps the wheels turning, and not the strip of land that marks the border between two fields, unrelated to link, as in chain, or by extension whatever connects one part to another- and therefore not a measure of chain, which in any case is less than the span of a hand holding the reins, the rope, the hoe, or taking something like justice into itself, as when a captain turned judge and gave it his name. that was before it lost its balance and crossed the border, the massed body of undoers claiming connection, relation, an intimate right to the prized parts, to the body undone. November 8 it is supposed that it is believed that Miss Anna Pelley Miss Annie Pelley Miss Anne Miss Pelly age 24 age 22 who worked in the Pupkin Dry Good store and lived an orphan who lived with her married sister * * * was five would not have seen he could have known the little girl who found the body she was seven or three but that would not have been till the next day * * * it is known she left work at 6:00 P.M.
Excerpted from Blue Front by Martha Collins Copyright © 2006 by Martha Collins. Excerpted by permission.
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