reviews My Afmerica by Artress Bethany White
Kadeem Locke is a writer living in Florida. He is on staff at Trio House Press, and stays up until 2 a.m. most nights reading science fiction, poetry, and novels in addition to working as a personal trainer.
My Afmerica, by Artress Bethany White (Trio House Press, 2018) When do Americans take a look at the system they live in and finally question if it is right? Before reading My Afmerica, it is important that readers not only take the time to understand the crafting of Artress Bethany White’s poems, but also take the time to try and understand them from another perspective. She puts readers into the shoes of an African-American living in America, trying to understand the world around them—while also fitting in. Without doing this, readers won’t be able to get the true heart of this collection.
Artress Bethany White’s poem, “Plantation Wedding,” begs her readers to look at the things they see as commonplace and asks why we allow such things to occur without question. The lines, “Why would any woman stage her twenty-first century wedding on a plantation where masters slaked their lust on the shivering bodies of black boys and girls?” encompasses the heart of this book of poetry. With very few words, a poignant picture is painted. Artress Bethany White uncovers what many believe to be the norm. Many will say a plantation is beautiful, and even have their weddings there, as if countless lives weren’t lost. Families were destroyed; men, women, and children killed. In such trying times, My Afmerica exposes what has been avoided for decades challenging America to look in the mirror.
The poem “Coils” also takes on another part of American racism that still occurs in normal conversation. “How does your hair do that?” It’s a question every African-American child has been asked by white children and adults alike. Whether the response is an awkward laugh, or maybe a witty comment, there really isn’t an answer for the question. How do parents have a conversation with their children that hair will be a major factor in determining their future? The poet opens the poem with the lines, “Daughter, / your hair will govern your life / is what I think / but do not say.” Artress Bethany White brings readers into the struggle parents carry knowing their child will be judged prematurely by the texture of his or her hair when he or she goes out into the world. These images take on a life of their own as the poem ends, “The hallowed pleats/of Old Glory/yet crackling/on a breeze/in the New England schoolyard/still declaring justice for the free.” The poem rips an open wound and forces the real questions to the foreground: justice for who, exactly? Is it justice for the small African-American child who is looked at as unkempt because their hair forms coils, or maybe the adult whose job forces them to cut their natural hair because it doesn’t fit “American standard”? The poem makes the reader feel the same discomfort that African-Americans feel when that question is asked. Do they act as if the question didn’t bother them to keep the peace? Or do they say something, only to look as if they’re acting irrational and angry? The poet approaches “Coils” in another light saying, “Please/let it not be a Caucasian boy/swinging a noose through a/suburban high school door/one Halloween morn.” In the poem, Americans allow a blatant racist gesture to occur and justify that it is only a child participating in a holiday tradition. The deeper the reader gets into My Afmerica, the more they have to wonder, “Is the norm right, or are we just too scared to change it?”
Part two of My Afmerica focuses on the blended American family. From speaking on having a blended family in the poem, “The Worry,” to attacking a father trying to bond and vacation with his family while being black in America, both poems show the way others perceive the blended situations. In “Tripping with Dad,” the poet writes, “leaving tense airline staff in your wake/pleading Please, sir, do not come back this way.” When is it fine for an African-American to take their children on a family vacation? When will others feel “safe” having someone different from them in their presence?
In this collection, so many subtleties are brought to light, such as in the poem “The Race,” where something as simple as a foot race has two children facing racial and economic issues. The poem starts, “We are the only black family in the subdivision, / and your family is the poorest.” So much can be taken from these lines, but the racial undertones of expecting the black family to be the poorest is the most striking. It has been bred into society for this to be expected, and even if it isn’t true, it will appear as such. This has become such commonplace that the narrator, after beating her friend’s brother in a race asks, “if it was [her] years or color that offended him the most.” Even as a child, the narrator has to question if her greatness was an issue because of her race. Yet, if she had lost the race, it would have been perfectly acceptable for the only black child in the neighborhood to lose—they’re supposed to lose. The poet makes a claim in her poem “Family Planning” saying, “Creating good memories for a child / is a primer for sound parenting.” But how does a parent create those memories while trying to navigate an Afmerica that inherently hates them?
The poems in My Afmerica reveal the lives of African-Americans and the struggles that touch us all in a world of unacceptable norms. Whether it is having a wedding on a plantation, or being asked about why your hair is so curly, changes need to occur. America has to face that there is a difference in the way African-American’s are treated. The cost of history is high, but will America finally ever reconcile and repair that history?