“The Tradition” by Jericho Brown and Introduction by Jesmyn Ward Summary
“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 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...
(The entire section is 1,335 words.)