Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1334
“The Tradition” by Jericho Brown
Jericho Brown’s poem “The Tradition” begins with the italicized names of common garden plants: aster, nasturtium, and delphinium. Speaking as a collective “we,” the speaker says they thought that because it was their hands that worked the dirt that produced these beautiful blooms, the dirt belonged to them. They describe “learning names in heat” of plants and flowers and “elements classical” that “Philosophers said could change us.”
Two more fragrant, colorful blossoms—star gazer and foxglove—are named as the narrator shifts their focus from the land and the people who worked it to the season and climate, marveling at how the “Summer seemed to bloom against the will of the sun.” Although the planet is hotter now than when their ancestors labored and sweated, the beauty and abundance of summer still asserts itself. This return to the idea of Black toil also suggests images of death and heritage as the speaker names two more flowers—cosmos and baby’s breath—before focusing on their own present experience.
The speaker now identifies himself as a man and describes how “Men like me and my brothers . . . filmed what we / Planted for proof we existed.” With video, the narrator’s generation can fast forward to watch their flowers bloom in “colors you expect in poems / Where the world ends, everything cut down.” The italicized final line lists the names of John Crawford, Eric Garner, and Mike Brown, all Black men “cut down,” like flowers, by the police.
Introduction by Jesmyn Ward
When Jesmyn Ward hears about Trayvon Martin’s killing, she is pregnant and working on a memoir about five Black men she grew up with who all died young, including her brother. She tells us that every time she turned back to coverage of the news, “my unborn child and my dead brother and my friends sat with me.” She knows from experience and intuition that “Trayvon’s death would be excused,” and Ward and her peers on Black Twitter are proven correct when Martin’s killer is acquitted of murder charges the following year. With all the media attention paid to the event, Ward and her peers are baffled at what nobody else seems to be talking about: that Martin was a child, a teenage boy with a Snapple Iced Tea and a bag of Skittles candy.
Biased reporting and use of Trayvon Martin’s image portrayed Martin as a “vicious menace” in the court of public opinion, as if his high school disciplinary record could somehow justify his murder. Ward knows the enduring effect that misrepresenting Martin’s character will have on his memory and blamelessness, leading her to wonder how anyone could look at his “baby face and not see a child” or feel a need to protect him.
Ward realizes that the majority of Americans view Trayvon Martin differently than she, a Black woman, does. The assumptions police made about Martin based on his appearance and clothing are rooted in shopworn racist myths about the inherent threat and immorality of Black men and boys. Ward explains her intimate understanding of these deadly myths as a Southerner who has experienced the “suffocating” physical conditions of Black Southern existence.
These racist myths define Southern heritage. Ward references the cultural impact of Gone With the Wind , which fueled nostalgia for a way of life that never was, leading to Confederate monuments and plantation museums. In order to support her claims about the deep-rootedness of racist attitudes in Southern culture, she relates two stories about former senator Trent Lott, from Ward’s home state of Mississippi. In 2002, Lott was speaking at an event honoring the...
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retiring South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond, an ardent segregationist and opponent of civil rights legislation who ran for the Democratic nomination for president in the 1948 election on a racist, state’s-rights platform. Speaking of this, Lott praised Thurmond, saying that had the rest of the country followed the Southern lead, then “we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.”
The white supremacist implications of Lott’s remarks were a jarring reminder for Ward of just how Black people are regarded by the powerful political elite—yet she wasn’t surprised. When she was a Mississippi high schooler, her class, which was all white except for her, went as part of a national program to visit Lott in his Senate offices. Ward recalls that on Lott’s desk was a bullwhip “as long as a car,” which Lott picked up and cracked in the air, smiling to one of Ward’s male classmates and making a comment about “us Southern boys.”
The experience was a serious lesson for the young Ward that much of America regards Black people with diminished empathy and respect. She wonders how she might be remembered if she were to suddenly die, comparing herself to a litany of Black people killed either by police (Tamir Rice, Mike Brown), suicide in police custody (Sandra Bland), citizen watchman (Trayvon Martin), or Ku Klux Klan murder plot (Emmett Till), noting that all of the victims were initially perceived as some form of “menace.”
Ward returns to the solace of Twitter, but its lack of substance leaves her feeling devoid of the community and conversation she’s looking for. In the year after Trayvon Martin’s death, in which “black person after black person died and no one was held accountable,” she picks up her copy of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and remembers her first exposure to Baldwin’s essay “Notes of a Native Son” in her twenties as “a revelation.” Although she rereads Baldwin’s works regularly, something stands out to her this time in his essay “A Letter to My Nephew.” Ward realizes that Baldwin’s voice—a Black elder telling his young relative that they are loved and needed—was what she needed to hear. In fact, she is sure that Black youth everywhere in the country need a similar message. Ward decides to reach out to a community of leading Black writers, artists, and academics, asking them to submit works on Black themes in the spirit of Baldwin and in memory of Trayvon Martin and others.
The “tradition” of the title of Brown’s opening sonnet refers to the history of Black bodies and Black labor in relation to the American soil. The flowers listed are all perennial plants, meaning they return every year and are particularly adaptable, and the beautiful blossoms, as all the earth’s bounty, are coaxed to life by Black fingers. However, the narrator makes clear that this “tradition” also means that the soil and its bounty doesn’t belong to those who work it, confounding the narrator’s collective. Working in the hot fields, being taught the names of things and the highlights of Western knowledge, the narrator’s people were told that they could elevate and improve themselves, transcending the circumstances they were born into. The image of growth and blossoming from the earth shifts from omniscient narration to the narrator referring to the content on a video screen, which can be sped through to reach the climax. It’s clear at this point that the narrator isn’t talking about flowers, but the bodies of Black youth “cut down,” like crops, by the police.
These are the deaths that sparked the outrage and pain expressed throughout the collection and led Jesmyn Ward to reconsider the relevance of James Baldwin’s message for a new generation. As with Ward’s dedication, the names and images of the dead have become cultural symbols for the structural injustice and oppressive conditions under which so many Black people live, especially the constant threat of targeted, arbitrary violence at the hands of armed authorities. Both of these works introduce the collection’s primary themes of Black bodies, Black images, the perilous nature of Black humanity, and Black people’s connection to the country they made but were denied ownership of.