Monday, January 27, 2014
Lance Jeffers (1919-1985)
Writing Toward Balance
Excerpt By Jerry Ward
Equating the power of Lance Jeffers’ mind with intellectual passion, Eugene Redmond proclaimed in his introduction for “When I Know the Power of My Black Hand” (1974) that Jeffers was “a giant baobab tree we younger saplings lean on, because we understand that he bears witness to the power and majesty of ‘Pres, and Bird, and Hodges, and all’ “(11). In bearing witness to fabulous musicians, Jeffers left evidence in his poetry and his novel Witherspoon (1983) that the art of writing well entails finding a balance between the kind of humility to which Redmond alludes and the mastery of craft.
In an interview with Paul Austerlitz included in “Jazz Consciousness: Music, Race, and Humanity” (Middletown, Ct: Wesleyan University Press, 2005), Milford Graves speaks about his interest in Einstein and quantum physics. John Coltrane was also immersed in study of Einstein’s physics. In the poetry of Asili Ya Nadhiri, one discovers his indebtedness to jazz and physics, just as one finds in Jeffers’ poetry an indebtedness to the study of anatomy, jazz, and classical music. Strong poets and strong musicians are receptive to mastering their craft by making intellectual investments in disciplines which, on the surface, seem remote from their own. Assertive humility is important.
Humility may be alien in contemporary American life, but it is necessary for our respecting tradition and ourselves as saplings in need of guidance from baobabs, redwoods, and oaks. Reading all of Jeffers’ poems in “My Blackness is the Beauty of This Land” (1970), “When I Know the Power of My Black Hand," "O Africa Where I Baked My Bread” (1977) and “Grandsire” (1979) is a rewarding use of time. We learn to locate ourselves in human history. We learn that direct confrontation and battle with language is more valuable than intimacy with clichés.
When I Know the Power of My Black Hands
By Lance Jeffers
I do not know the power of my hand, I do not know the power of my black hand.
I sit slumped in the conviction that I am powerless,
tolerate ceilings that make me bend.
My godly mind stoops, my ambition is crippled;
I do not know the power of my hand.
I see my children stunted,
my young men slaughtered,
I do not know the mighty power of my hand.
I see the power over my life and death in another man's hands, and sometimes I shake my woolly head and wonder:
Lord have mercy. What would it be like . . . to be free?
But when I know the mighty power of my black hand
I will snatch my freedom from the tyrant's mouth, know the first taste of freedom on my eager tongue, sing the miracle of freedom with all the force
of my lungs,
christen my black land with exuberant creation, stand independent in the hall of nations, root submission and dependence from the soil of my soul and pitch the monument of slavery from my back when I know the mighty power of my hand!
On Listening to the Spirituals
By Lance Jeffers
When the master lived a king and I a starving hutted slave beneath the lash, and
when my five-year-old son was driven at dawn to cottonfield to pick until he could no longer see the sun, and
when master called my wife to the big house when mistress was gone, took her against her will and gave her a dollar to be still, and when she turned upon her pride and cleavered it, cursed her dignity and stamped on it, came back to me with his evil on her thighs, hung her head when I condemned her with my eyes,
what broken mettle of my soul wept steel, cracked teeth in self-contempt upon my flesh, crept underground to seek new roots and secret breathing place?
When all the hatred of my bones was buried in a forgotten county of my soul,
then from beauty muscled from the degradation of my oaken bread,
I stroked on slavery soil the mighty colors of my song, a passionate heaven rose no God in heaven could create!
Dictionary of Literary Biography on Lance Jeffers
The corpus of black American literature is characterized by extraordinarily varied rhetorical forms, all devoted to articulating the real, human condition of a people who bear a unique and harassed relation to their own nation. In this corpus the poetry of Lance Jeffers is particularly significant for its individuality so squarely rooted in the traditions of black expression. In themes, images and vision, but in linguistic freedoms as well, Jeffers's poetry is securely faithful to an aesthetic whose boundaries and potentials it constantly extends and defends.
Lance Jeffers was born the only child of Henry Nelson and Dorothy may Flippin, on 28 November 1919, in Fremont, Nebraska. His mother's father, George Albert Flippin, took Jeffers from his parents when he was one year old, and reared him in Stromsburg, Nebraska. Jeffers lived with his grandfather and his wife (who was white) until the grandfather's death in May 1929. There can be no doubt that Jeffers was permanently influenced by the personality of this strong-willed and defiant black medical doctor, living in an almost exclusively white environment, with both unwilling and grateful white patients.
Jeffers's published volumes of poetry include “My Blackness Is the Beauty of This Land” (1970), “When I Know the Power of My Black Hand” (1974), “O Africa, Where I Baked My Bread” (1977), and “Grandsire” (1979). He dedicated three of the volumes to his wife Trellie, about whom he has written more than twenty poems, including the entire second section of “Grandsire,” and who served as a touchstone and constant source of inspiration to Jeffers. Other poems focus on racism, the beauty of blackness, the power of human beings to endure oppression, ancestry and homeland, topical issues such as the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, and global issues such as the Holocaust. Witherspoon (1983) is Jeffers's one and only novelistic venture. It is the story of a black minister who, during a racial crisis, learns the value of revolution.
A few critics have appreciated Jeffers's mastery of language and metaphor, his exquisite attention to the possibilities of linguistic expression, and his aggressive pride in blackness, but more expansive and sustained scholarly studies of his works have yet to appear.
• Lance Jeffers, “A Black Poet's Vision: An Interview with Lance Jeffers,” interview by Doris Laryea, CLA Journal 26 (June 1983): 422–433.
• David Dorsey, “Lance Jeffers,” in DLB, vol. 41, Afro-American Poets since 1955, eds. Trudier Harris and Thadious M. Davis, 1985, pp. 183–190
My Blackness Is the Beauty of This Land
My blackness is the beauty of this land,
tender and strong, wounded and wise,
I, drawing black grandmother, smile muscular and sweet,
unstraightened white hair soon to grow in earth,
work-thickened hand thoughtful and gentle on grandson’s head,
my heart is bloody-razored by a million memories’ thrall:
remembering the crook-necked cracker who spat my naked body,
remembering the splintering of my son’s spirit because he remembered to be proud
remembering the tragic eyes in my daughter’s dark face when she learned her color’s meaning,
and my own dark rage a rusty knife with teeth to gnaw my bowels,
my agony ripped loose by anguished shouts in Sunday’s humble church,
my agony rainbowed to ecstasy when my feet oversoared Montgomery’s slime,
ah, this hurt, this hate, this ecstasy before I die,
and all my love a strong cathedral!
My blackness is the beauty of this land!
Lay this against my whiteness, this land!
Lay me, young Brutus stamping hard on the cat’s tail,
gutting the Indian, gouging the nigger,
booting Little Rock’s Minniejean Brown in the buttocks and boast, my sharp white teeth derision-bared as I the conqueror crush!
Skyscraper-I, white hands burying God’s human clouds beneath the dust!
Skyscraper-I, slim blond young Empire
thrusting up my loveless bayonet to rape the sky,
then shrink all my long body with filth and in the gutter lie
as lie I will to perfume this armpit garbage,
While I here standing black beside
wrench tears from which the lies would suck the salt
to make me more American than America …
But yet my love and yet my hate shall civilize this land,
this land’s salvation.
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I picked up the book "When I Know the Power of My Black Hand" as an undergrad at Tougaloo (Thanks Dr. Ward). It just so happened that Eugene B. Redmond wrote the introduction for the book. It's funny that Redmond and I became such good friends years later. The poetry of L. Jeffers, oh, and Dr. Ward were two of the connections.—Howard Rambsy
I remember being very happy when a young critic published "Facing Unknown Possibilities: Lance Jeffers and the Black Aesthetic" in Step into a World: A Global Anthology of the New Black Literature (2000), edited by Kevin Powell.—Jerry Ward
I still have the book that he autographed with the words "To Miriam Willis with warm regards and the very pleasantest of memories of her warm hospitality in Memphis--Lance Jeffers," when the Memphis Black Writers' Workshop gave a reception & autograph party honoring him on the publication of his novel "Witherspoon" in October 1983. He was a brilliant poet and wonderful human being.—Miriam Decosta-Willis
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Such Agonies Suffer Our Men of War
Reading Witherspoon, one is moved by its aesthetic and its morality. Lance Jeffers does not depend on mutilation of language, allusion to the arcane, or puzzles in logic to achieve effects. He is too good and too honest an artist to engage in easy tricks. He knows, as wordsmiths have known since the pre-history of Africa, that a good story told in language the community can understand is not to be surpassed. The grace and strength of fiction are located in its ability to show us our lives with more order, insight, and clarity than we can normally obtain. Good fiction pushes us toward recognition, toward a profound, relentless honesty about ourselves and others. It forces us to make moral decisions while satisfying our penchant for narratives about man’s endless contest with the fate of being human. Because it fulfills these criteria superbly, Witherspoon is a fine, important novel. . . .
Evoking the wisdom of the spirituals (a fact apparent in the novel’s original title The Lord is a Man of War), Lance Jeffers has given us fiction that is convertive and blacktrocuting. In its affirmation that descent into the inferno of racism leads to rising like a phoenix, Witherspoon offers to us the grandeur that is ours. Witherspoon is the sorrow song of our new day, the martial song for Black men who would know the power of their hands. It is an ode to the invisible men and women whose authentic humanity must become the model of our own.