Scoundrel Time

Street Smarts: On Confronting Poetry and Language in a Mississippi Classroom

Photo by W. Ralph Eubanks


After living in Washington, DC for more than thirty years, I like to think that I’ve acquired some street smarts. When in unfamiliar territory, I keep my guard up and sublimate the trusting Mississippi country boy side of me, a part of my persona that does not serve me well outside of the South. Yet lately I’ve found that I also have to keep the unwary and trustful side of me locked up in the land of my birth. The South is not the same place where I grew up, one provincially isolated from external influences. Today there are risks in navigating the terrain—as there always have been— but these contemporary uncertainties are relatively unfamiliar. The coded language used in the South today masks animosity, yet hints at the threatening parlance I remember from my formative years. Use of certain words whispers warnings to tread cautiously, to be aware.

After returning to Mississippi last year to teach at a small liberal arts college, the skill of focused skepticism acquired outside the South was just what I needed to assist my re-entry into a world I left behind more than 40 years ago. When navigating a Trump rally about a year ago with a fellow professor, I put to work my newly found reserve of heightened social awareness. At the time, the Trump phenomenon was sweeping Mississippi and the rest of the country. It was part of the very air I breathed, and I felt I had to understand it.

At the rally last March, it did not take long for me to recognize that the relatively affluent crowd in the town of Madison felt an emotional connection with Trump. The spontaneous passions on display mattered more to those assembled that day than a five-point economic plan or substantive public policy issues. I listened carefully to the language that was bandied about. Issues such as immigration, trade, and racial justice in policing were characterized as being “against America” by the crowd at the rally. Though this term, in my view, lacked specificity, the crowd seemed to know exactly what it meant.

Behind the veiled expression “against America” rests an accusation of being treasonous or un-American. That sunny Mississippi spring afternoon, the connotation evoked McCarthyism and the use of the term “outside agitator” to belittle the work of those promoting the civil rights movement. It’s an old tactic: place a label on a person or action and make them a target for derision. That day I worried that the progress so many had worked and died for in Mississippi was being shoved aside for a recycled version of the past.

After the outcome of the presidential election, the program Write for Mississippi—a project started by Mississippi native and novelist Katy Simpson Smith—approached me about conducting a writing workshop to promote civic engagement in Mississippi high schools. Even though I had returned to Washington, I decided I had to find the time to teach this workshop. Visions of that rally stuck with me, leading me to think that the written word might hold the power to illuminate these times.

As a graduate of a small-town Mississippi high school, I had a sense of what I was walking into. If the school I was assigned to was like the one I’d attended, conformity was valued over critical thinking. Yet I knew that high school students in Mississippi were more sophisticated than those of us who grew up in a place once known for being a closed society. As I scanned the curriculum for Write for Mississippi—which includes writers from Roberto Bolaño to Maya Angelou—one piece of writing stood out. It was a poem by Cave Canem fellowship recipient Danez Smith called “Principles.” When I read it I saw the possibility of using it to launch my brainstorming session for the student writers. Smith’s repetition and fluid use of words, many of them with dual meanings, seemed perfect to launch a discussion about writing and language. Then, when I watched him perform the poem in an online video, these words struck me hard:

ask if your country belongs to your country folk
ask if your country is addicted to blood
ask if your country is addicted to forgetting
ask if your country is an oil & power fiend

[The complete poem text is here.]

When I went to do my workshop, I was hoping to use Smith’s performance to begin the hour-and-a-half-long session. But words from the Trump rally rose up to greet me soon after arriving at the school, a series of connected low-slung 1950s-era brick buildings. The teacher, with clear regret in her voice, noted that she had received a phone call from the superintendent of education noting complaints from parents about the Danez Smith poem, which the students had watched the poet read on YouTube. Next I learned that she had been accused by parents of promulgating ideas that were “against America.” To keep myself from acquiring the label “outside agitator”—and getting the teacher in trouble—I decided Danez Smith’s work would not be the centerpiece of my workshop.

After collecting our thoughts, the teacher and I shifted the approach I would use that day. Thinking quickly, we agreed to focus on getting the students to write strong lead paragraphs to their essays. I introduced the journalistic idea of the “lede” to turn their attention to placing gripping essential details about the topic of their personal essay in the first paragraph. “Write a sentence of two that will grab your reader by the collar, shake them up, and make them pay attention,” I urged the students.

The students saw a diverse range of topics as issues to be worked on in their community. A student wearing a large shiny Confederate flag belt buckle wrote passionately about the issue of health care for the elderly. Another expressed concern for minors caught up in the immigration system, a piece of writing certainly fueled by the anti-sanctuary cities bill recently passed by the Mississippi state legislature. By the end of class, students had written lead paragraphs for essays on topics as varied as education, immigration, xenophobia, homophobia, police brutality, feminism and body image, drug abuse, gun violence, racism, and clean drinking water.

What the students wrote made me and their classmates pay attention. In spite of its absence in the workshop, they captured the essence of Danez Smith’s poem in the sharp and direct language they used in their ledes. They were asking if their country belonged to their “country folk” as well as if their country was addicted to forgetting. They did not shy away from expressing opinions that might be labeled as “against America.” No one mentioned the poem, but its presence was felt in the classroom.

What I believe I witnessed in that Mississippi classroom is that the written word can be a clarifying force, a corrective to negative ideas and thoughts pushed upon us by the world we live in. Yes, writing can sometimes be used like street smarts when wandering through uncharted territory.