Voices from the American Land

Quraysh Ali Lansana
Quraysh Ali Lansana Quraysh Ali Lansana, Director of the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Studies and Creative Writing at Chicago State University, writes on growing up black in the hard prairie landscapes of Oklahoma

bloodsoil (sooner red)

—Introduction by Renny Golden

Quraysh Ali Lansana imagined the voices of Africans held in slavery in his book They Shall Run: Harriet Tubman Poems (Third World Press, 2004). In bloodsoil (sooner red), his voice recounts his youth in Oklahoma, and in an America where five months after Quraysh’s birth in 1964, El-Hajj Malik El Shabazz (Malcolm X) was gunned down, where Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered when Q was three, and his grade school shut down due to desegregation when he was 11. His five older siblings carried these sorrows and instructed him, the youngest, in pride and resistance. His poems remember family: his sister Charolette whose photo on a carousel pony is the book’s cover. But he especially remembers mutha (Grandma Anna) and his aunties singing in a Texas or Oklahoma church, testifying in a red dirt praise house where a narrow rift divides poetry and song. Quraysh still hears the cadences of their rock and hum when between prayers they tilled poetry with blood and sweat.

Quraysh came of age in Enid, Oklahoma, located in former Indian Territory where, in 1838, those Cherokees who survived the thousand mile Trail of Tears death march, were “granted” six million acres of hunting grounds. The town of Enid grew overnight in 1893 when President
Cleveland, having paid Cherokees $1.40 per acre, opened a “run” for those acres which awarded white settlers any land they could stake. Quraysh, too, stakes that land in memory—a small town boy who has, since his youth, spent 20 years in urban space, mostly in Chicago, and
graduate school in New York. His writing seeks to understand how people of color navigate small town and big city geographies of loss and resistance. In this collection, he returns to that blood-soaked clay where, on Sundays, his aunties swayed in churches and sang gratitude,
and where his best friend Zack became team mascot, a servant in his own house of sky and land.

Quraysh Ali Lansana’s great grandfather, a full blooded Tsalagi Cherokee from the Appalachian Black Mountain foothills near the Tennessee-Mississippi border, escaped the Trail of Tears and fled to Mississippi. Q’s writing addresses American land as contested, violated, occupied, and, resounding in memory, as the place where his aunties’ small choir sang gratitude. And, just as his blood runs with that betrayal and beauty, so too, the land’s body reveals the sorrows and triumphs of those who planted, harvested and first loved North American soil. Quraysh’s poetry searches for that America and also for those lost to him, friends who navigated or refused borders, geographies that ignored them or drove them away. He is still surprised at his own fragile safety, his son’s steady breathing at 2:30 a.m.—an assurance and a worry. A young father, a professor carrying the legacy of his mentor, the great Gwendolyn Brooks, as Director of the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing at Chicago State University, he looks over his shoulder at those who brought him this far and he is humbled. His voice, imagery, and spare lyricism are influenced by poets Lucille Clifton, Sterling Brown and Walt Whitman. The Black Arts Movement shaped him contextually, but not aesthetically. In this moment when a mixed blood man has told America there is still a way forward—that hope lies with those who sang in troubled times, whose children and children’s children still carry that music of black sharecroppers and the lament of Cherokees on a winter death march from Mississippi to Oklahoma—here is another visionary looking back, looking for America, looking toward the motherland, Africa, and he makes us look with him, not with certainties, ankle high in questions. His last poem is about pilgrimage to Africa: nothing is moving she whispers / only sand that bears your name. In the Mende language of central West Africa Lansana means storyteller. These are stories of protest and gratitude from a beautiful storyteller.

Renny Golden’s book of poetry, The Hour of the Furnaces was nominated for a National Book Award; her new book of poetry, Blood Desert: Witnesses 1820–1880 (Nuevo Mexico in the 1800s) was published in 2011 by the University of New Mexico Press.


Poem by Quraysh Ali Lansana:

mascot
for zack. for mark.

I.

the red undertones that inform my melanin
were birthed in the black mountain foothills
near the tennessee-mississippi border.

my great grandfather albert found freedom
just before the trail of tears migration
and hooked up with an ornery black
woman in westpoint, muddy waters’ neighbor.

ms. cora mae, never one to hold anything
long but money, sent him to his horse
upon the news—she had things to do—my grandma
would join the family business in a while.

ms. cora mae carried three daughters and two sons
into post-reconstruction mississippi, sown
from different seeds. the women, their doors
always open, were sexy to kill for. the men
loyal enough to do the job—cooking shine and running
game.
when the klan came calling the guns were loaded.
my father and uncles, all under ms. cora mae’s command
led rebellion against attack on their cottage industry, left
red cotton to feed brittle soil, then scattered in four directions.

after three draft dodging years in miami, daddy ended
up in oklahoma, where his sisters somehow landed
and his mama joined them after california.

II.

i am an okie. grew up on cherokee
as did zack, my first best friend,
who lived two blocks away and wore
the street in his skin. we liked basketball,
cars, and never watched westerns.
zack disappeared in high school after one year
in warpaint riding a spotted mare at pre-game.
he was gone before i had the chance
to tell him what i already knew.

grandma never claimed native and hated
anyone darker than a grocery bag. this is where
i begin, on cherokee, trying to find zack
to talk about this mascot issue.

III.

the beantown honkies
the johnson city jarheads
the washington senators
the oaktown wannabees
the cushing crackers
the tulsa rednecks
the old baltimore bigots
the chicago police department
the white city afrikaaners
the cook county overseers
the heritage foundation
the riverside peckerwoods
the german shepherds

IV.

How politically correct can we get? To me, the folks who make these decisions
need to get out more often. I think they insult those people by telling them, ‘No. No. You're not smart enough to understand this. You should be feeling really horrible
about it.’ It's ridiculous.
Jeb Bush, Governor of Florida *

*St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, August 10, 2005

V.

ms. brooks urged me to return to school
from the nervous backseat of my mustang
in 1994. but what triggered the movement
was an enid, oklahoma drunken conversation
in a honky tonk with friends from high school,
all white and pseudo-liberal, for what it’s worth.
we deliberated level playing fields & jesse jackson
while the sad child of hank williams warbled
something loud about loneliness. just as twelve
years prior, i was cultural diversity at the table
and no longer comfortable. one man, maybe
my closest oklahomey in the bar, assured me
the residuals of chattel slavery no longer existed,
while leaning against the door of a 150-year-old
family business. i enrolled in african american
studies two months later. he will not remember
this exchange any more than he will recall the night
i was informed my blackness was a liability
in his pursuit of teenage pussy. history will tell on you.


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