Incident in the Lives of Three African American Poets, Written by Themselves

Article excerpt

Early in November of 2002, three poets, all members of the Carolina African American Writers' Collective, began a journey from our homes in Winston-Salem, Durham, and Raleigh, North Carolina. We had been invited to give a poetry reading in Bertie County, in the northeastern part of the state, an almost wholly rural area with a predominantly African American population. A member of the county's arts community had seen the need to target some programming toward this potential African American audience, and we were very happy to support her efforts. To save us from having to make both the eastbound and westbound trips in a single day, she had thoughtfully suggested that we come in and spend the night before our reading at her home. So on the appointed afternoon, we gathered in Raleigh, packed ourselves into a single car, and headed for the hinterlands.

Little did we know that our 120-mile drive would take us into a world we wished this nation had left behind. We passed from city to towns to the "boonies," as rural areas are sometimes called, until no commercial establishments had appeared for many miles and cotton fields surrounded us as far as the eye could see. This scene did not scare us. We are all Southerners, born and raised; moreover, one of us grew up on a farm in Virginia, another had often worked in his great-grandmother's peanut fields in North Carolina and picked other crops, as well, and the third is the granddaughter of a Tennessee farmer, on whose land she had spent many a week, summer and winter, in her childhood. We thought we knew what we were getting into, had planned how we might handle the Klan if it reared its ugly head, had made sure we had gas aplenty to get us safely to our host's home. If we felt any misgivings--when our directions proved a bit ambiguous, when the autumn darkness settled over the countryside somewhat faster and heavier than we had expected--we brushed them aside with each other's assurances.

Nonetheless, arriving at our destination, we finally had to admit that the situation had gotten out of our control. We had wondered aloud how our host was going to put us up; it would have taken more space than most black folks had, rural or urban, to provide each of us and our spouses, who had also been invited but did not accompany us, with places to sleep. Turning in at the picket fence as our directions instructed, we could not see a thing beyond the beams of the headlights; the house was invisible in the double darkness of a night cluttered with pines as old and thick as eternity. A pleasant-looking white woman answered our knock, to our surprise. None of us had met her--she had interviewed one of us by phone more than a year earlier, for a local newspaper feature, and had corresponded with two of us by email. But her way of talking, her cultural knowledge, her expressed concerns in arranging this reading had (mis)identified her as African American. Had we guessed that she was white, we might not have dismissed the idea that had briefly crossed our minds earlier, the couldn't-be that most certainly was, as we realized immediately upon entering: Our host lived in a plantation house. …