Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1674
Joy Harjo begins Crazy Brave by gesturing to the East as the location of beginnings: “a door to fresh knowledge.” Harjo also reveals that the East is the direction of her place of birth, in Oklahoma and the Creek Nation.
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For as long as she can remember, Harjo has loved music. She recalls being a small child in the backseat of her parents’ car and experiencing the line of a jazz trumpet on the radio as a pathway to the origins of all sound, as well as to the “ancestor realm” and the sorrows of human life. This moment was Harjo’s “rite of passage into the world of humanity,” one that connected her to both past and future.
Harjo’s hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, is a Mvskoke, or Creek, town on the Arkansas River. Tulsa was born out of the forced exodus of her father’s ancestors, who were forced from their homes in the mid-nineteenth century. Soon, however, white Christian settlers laid claim to land that had been set aside as Indian Territory.
Harjo herself was “reluctant to be born” but felt drawn to the human world by story and music, especially her mother’s singing. The purpose of her birth, Harjo believes, was to pass on—and create—the stories and songs of her ancestors and their past. She, like everyone, has her own “soul story” to tell. As one of the oldest living relatives of her family line, she believes it is her responsibility to meditate on the past and try and preserve it through the act of storytelling. Her father is descended from a storied Mvskoke dynasty, and his grandfather, Henry Marcy Harjo, was a Baptist pastor who ministered to the Seminole in Florida. Henry became wealthy due to the Glenn Pool—a large oil field that was discovered on his lands in what is now Oklahoma. After their father’s death, Harjo and her siblings received modest yearly royalties from the oil company, until payments abruptly ended in the mid-1980s.
Harjo envisages the night her mother and father met at Casa Loma Dance Hall. Her mother, who was Cherokee, had defied her family by leaving her home with her best friend and making a new life in Tulsa. Harjo’s mother knew the night she met Harjo’s father that they would marry. Harjo categorizes her mother and father in terms of the four elements: her mother, “fire,” is purposeful and creative; her father, “water,” is ephemeral and ungrounded, with a proclivity toward drinking and womanizing.
In Harjo’s early memories, her mother is a beautiful woman whose singing voice makes “music” as she performs domestic chores. Her father was more remote, and Harjo loved and feared him in equal measure. Despite their differences, she was the one who ultimately helped guide him to the other side when he passed away. He was an alcoholic and violent toward her mother, who once recalled how he came home one night and clasped her neck in a “chokehold,” demanding that she go and tend to the baby. Although she stayed with him until Harjo was eight, this incident broke the trust between her and Harjo’s father irrevocably.
When Harjo was four years old, her parents suspected she had polio after she woke up feeling ill and in pain. This was the time of the polio epidemic, and the disease was known to paralyze and kill; it was feared to the extent that even uttering the word “polio” could seem like a curse. After her spinal cord was checked for fluid, it was revealed that she did not have polio. Shortly after the polio scare, however, Harjo began to experience a recurring dream about an alligator. In the dream, she walked by the side of a river, and an alligator emerged, pulling her under the water. Yet rather than being afflicted by a nightmare, she felt she had entered “an underwater story” in which she would live among the alligators. Today, Harjo believes she was in danger of developing polio and that the alligators healed her.
Harjo’s maternal grandmother was Leona May Baker, a woman of Cherokee and Irish lineage, while her grandfather, Desmond Baker, was born of French and German immigrants. Her grandmother was a great storyteller and would dream up tales to help put her seven children to sleep. During one excruciatingly cold winter, the whole family slept in the room with the fireplace. Their house was haunted, Harjo writes, and each night, Harjo’s mother would hear the “tinkling keys of an old-time piano” and the raucous sounds of a ghostly party. Eventually, a fight would break out among the ghosts, and Harjo’s mother would hear a gun firing, followed by a body being pulled down the stairs. She also recalls a family story about a man, likely her grandfather Desmond Baker, who worked on the railway and discovered that his wife was pregnant with someone else’s child. After beating her and causing her to miscarry the child, he pulled her out onto the railway tracks. The children witnessed him pushing her out of the way of the train and leaping to safety at the last moment. After this incident, the family continued their life “as if this story never happened.”
After starting school, Harjo began attending an evangelical Christian church. It was at church that she was taught that a sense of imagination or vision, particularly in a girl, was an act of the devil. She consequently began closing herself off to her spirituality. One balmy summer night, while she was playing outside with her brother and their neighbors, her mother called her inside and demanded that she put on a shirt, as she was a girl. It was at this moment that Harjo realized she was no longer part of nature, but part of an institution that would shame and humiliate her in the name of religion. She resolved to find a way to rebel.
Harjo now had two siblings, a sister and a brother. When drawing one day in her kindergarten class, she noticed how all the other children copied each other’s drawings of houses, prompting her to ask them why they imitated each other. The children then began to copy her own fantastical drawing— Harjo often drew igloos and a house with a tree at its center. This moment led Harjo to realize that her path would divert from that of other individuals. She understood, too, that she would experience more suffering by turning away from her own path than she would by following it.
At eight years old, Harjo discovered the great poets when her mother gave her a copy of Louis Untermeyer’s Golden Books Family Treasury of Poetry. She was enthralled by what she read, as the poems allowed her to revisit the “dream worlds” that school had tried to shut her out of.
After her mother confessed her father’s affairs to Harjo, Harjo told her mother to leave him. Harjo’s father then disappeared from her life, and in his absence, she took refuge in the realm of imagination. One of her final memories of her father plays out in two ways in her memory: in one version, he laughs as he makes ice cream for his children with a churn, while in another version, her father is drunk and angry, and he never follows through on his promise to make the ice cream. Harjo’s father’s anger stemmed from his mother’s death, his father’s abuse, and the racism he endured, and it resulted in him lashing out at his wife and children. Although she wanted to stand up to her father, Harjo hid from him when his rage was directed at her. This only increased his anger, as he saw that his child “was not brave at all.”
The opening section of the memoir establishes that Harjo has experienced an acute understanding of herself, her history, and her purpose in life from a young age. This awareness predates her birth, situating her as a narrator with a deeply spiritual perception of the world. Music and poetry are significant to her from a young age and play a fundamental part in her life’s purpose; she writes that she “was entrusted with carrying voices, songs, and stories . . . into the world.” As well as involving the interconnected creative forms of poetry and storytelling, Harjo’s life’s purpose involves not only the visible world around her but the “ancestor realm,” the “dream worlds,” myth, and history. Her act of transmission is both individualistic (“We each have our own soul story to tell”) and communal, as it relays her “family story” and the stories of the Creek Nation. Although Harjo constantly seeks truth through narrative, the shadowy story of her great-grandfather, Desmond Baker, who nearly killed her grandmother before the family decided to pretend that “the story never happened,” shows that the truth is deeply vulnerable to omission.
While Harjo claims that she “was not brave,” specifically in the face of her father’s abuse, she also begins to question the notion of traditional heroism from her early years. The woman who gives birth to a child would typically be considered the brave individual, yet when reliving her own birth, Harjo positions herself as a “warrior” who “struggled through the birth canal,” thus depicting birth as an equally heroic act for both mother and child.
Most of Harjo’s formative years are characterized by outward experiences of trauma and suffering, as well as inward experiences of creativity and spirituality. In addition to witnessing the abusive behavior of her alcoholic father, she has to withstand the doctrines of the evangelical Christian church, which views her vivid imagination as “evil.” But once again, Harjo’s suffering is not solely her own. She frequently feels the pain of others, such as when she recalls being haunted by her early dreams of ancient Nubians tortured for their political beliefs, gesturing toward her own universal empathy.