Poetry’s Window into Black History

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Where William Walked
By Vernita Hall
Willow Books, 2019
$17.99, 90 pages
Review by Maria C. Goodson

Cleopatra lays in her last mortal pose, elegantly over her throne. Her chin tilts upwards with resignation on her face. One hand falls limply by her side, open, urging you to hold it, while her other sits in her lap and clasps the poisonous asp, the rumored cause of her death. She is made of marble, her last moments immortalized by another woman hundreds of years later who also lived her life with intention: Edmonia Lewis, the African American/Chippewa sculptor who captured her dying moments

I was in the Smithsonian American Art Museum recently because of a book, Where William Walked (Willow Books, 2019) by Vernita Hall, described as “poems about Philadelphia and it’s people of color.” This one short stanza that inspired the trip to DC and a new respect and fascination with the art of Edmonia Lewis:

“The sculpture The Death of Cleopatra by Edmonia Lewis was one of the most highly acclaimed exhibits.

The framed Cleopatra Edominian
nearly died in obscurity. Wholly in
character, the queen, resurrects her routine
rigor mortis now at the Smithsonian”

Cleopatra chose ending her life in order to escape falling under Cesar Augstus’ domination, and Lewis chose sculpting women, Indians, abolitionists, and freed slaves over white men. And though this made her as extraordinary as Cleopatra, of the two I had not known she existed before reading this book.

I’ve spent many hours researching Edmonia Lewis and the other luminaries of Where William Walked since that journey to DC, which now in the era of quarantine, has become a novelty. Our limited access to others has opened up conversations about the ways, both digital and analog, we can experience the present — but what about the past? Hall’s book of poems is about African American people through history that, for the most part, are not people we learn about in school. And after reading her book, I had to seek out more. Can poetry also function as a history lesson? What if this book, and others like it, could be used to teach history and poetry in every school in our country? Not only for its poetic beauty, form, and execution, but also its subject matter.

The poems here weave through time, from female preachers in the 1800s to enslaved people turned abolitionists to entertainers, dipping in and out of stories about William Still, Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, and W.E.B. Du Bois. Each poem artfully and movingly renders our country through a new lens and a form that isn’t normally the way we view history — through poetry and art, and not about the Americans who are white and male.

The poems in this collection vary in length, form, and style. Many are accompanied by quotes and dates, grounding you in history and words from the past, elevating the poem’s elegant phrases to another level. That there were so many different styles of poem was one of my favorite aspects of this book. Some were prose — short vignettes of (possibly) the author’s own memories and experiences. Others were more traditional verse, with different rhyme schemes.

Every poem hits hard and fast, even the smallest ones, such as “Road Rules”:

“I have learned
to jump-
start my car
The trick is

remembering
how you connect
cables
to leads

It’s easy–
a child knows
black is always
negative”

Hall’s use of space on the page lends a weight to the work, your eye pausing when it needs to in order to land her next line with the most impact possible. One of my absolute favorites, “In Pandora’s Box,” illustrates this better than any:

Edmonia Lewis and her sculpture, The Death of Cleopatra, are not the only subjects I went on to learn more about. The incredible voice of Marian Anderson (who also had an exhibition at the American Art Museum) now fills my dreams with her contralto voice singing opera. The bravery of female preachers inspires me. This book is not just a beautiful collection of historical poems, but a reminder of how far we still need to go before our country is truly free for all. The struggles depicted in Where William Walked are many of the same struggles African American people still face today — the strides we have made are not good enough. Thank you, Vernita Hall, for this beautiful book and for filling in the gaps in our country’s education, and my own.

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About Author

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Maria C. Goodson is a writer in Baltimore City, where she spends her time telling people where they should volunteer around town, running a reading series called Writers & Words, and creating art out of pipe cleaners anytime she is given the opportunity. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Oxford Brookes University. She enjoys writing anxiety haikus, holiday card stories, and villanelles about love and connection. Her website is mariacgoodson.com.

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