Patricia Spears Jones
Furry Lewis—Memphis, 1969
Oh what genes we carry this making of Americans
The strands and strains of clashing clans/dishonored kinfolk
Dahomey meets Wales meet Cherokee Nation consider
A gentle shade of brown slant of eye the high planes
Of cheekbones or a lightness of skin tone –a troubling
And doubling of the tribal flourishing
Of course some passed strange across these strata desperate
How the ploys undertaken denying birthrights, human rights
Civil rights succeeded or failed is the story we tell one way
Others tell it another way—truth is malleable like clay or
Corn and water. Or is left at the hanging tree—victims
Dried blood borders the sad tree’s root system. And cousins
Swear and swerve away from the traces of kin picked clean
By vultures. Kin cut names from their tongues, burn names
In the wood stove; throw names into the river. Forget the
Strands that link them blue eyed and blond back to Africa.
Generations give “no never mind” as the tumult of changes
Rumble around them. Yet there is always one who keeps
The shame or the blame near to her mind’s measure
Death bed confessions/attics messy furnishings/diaries
Unlocked and threads of hair touched again-who was kissed
Here and when? Who grabbed the girl and made her pregnant?
Who walked away when her father was lynched? Who snatched
Whose land? Who took it back? Those bright greetings
On Sunday mornings—Pastor to Pastor—congregation to
Congregation singing the same hymns but in different measures
How these cousins many times removed walk away from
Each other. Full of mystery. Full of fear.
Dedicated to Thulani Davis
Furry Lewis—Memphis, 1969
I remember these Jewish guys from New York come to Memphis searching
for Furry Lewis. So they show up on campus, and ask for his address.
We are like, who is Furry Lewis? And why are you asking us?
They were long haired, sweet tempered and determined.
They found Furry Lewis living all of a fifteen minute walk
From campus in a neat bungalow with a wife, girlfriend, minder
—Who are these white folks and you girl with your
Afro hair? Who are you?
Furry was cool. He was used to visits from enthusiasts
New York or Tokyo, did not matter—he was Gentleman
Personified until he played his guitar.
Then a world of bad women, sharp knives, guns,
Spilled blood the howling Klan
came out of his old man’s mouth.
Running from the twin dogs of war and poverty
Got him out of the hell the Delta could be
And let him listen to children, we were children
in his house. Black revolutionaries said blues don’t matter,
all those “Toms” strumming some dumb guitar.
They surely meant this kindly man with fire in eyes.
When Black Panthers were busted in Memphis,
A fundraiser was organized. And
Who were there—not the Memphis Rhythm and Blues
Establishment, their pimp hats cocked to the side.
Not the rock and roll hippie guys, they were for peace, man.
Nor the young “bloods” brandishing revolutionary rhetoric,
Spooked up, doped out.
There was this old man with a silly first name.
This old bluesman ferociously singing
Lifting up defiant young people.
No shame in his game.
Howling his blues, teaching
Us the sound of revolution—
Power to the people in an old man’s voice.
Patricia Spears Jones is author of Painkiller and Femme du Monde (Tia Chucha Press) and The Weather That Kills (Coffee House) and three chapbooks including Swimming to America (Red Glass Books) and two plays commissioned and produced by Mabou Mines, the internationally acclaimed experimental theater company. Poems are anthologized in Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry (W.W. Norton); Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (U of Georgia Press); Starting Today: 100 Poems for Obama’s First 100 Days (U. of Iowa Press) broken land: Poems of Brooklyn ((NYU Press) and Best American Poetry: 2000. She is editor of 30 Days Hath September, blog project at www.blackearthinstitute.org; Think: Poems for Aretha Franklin’s Inauguration Day Hat and Ordinary Women: An Anthology of Poetry by New York City Women and is a contributing editor to Bomb Magazine. Awards received from The Foundation of Contemporary Art and The New York Community Trust (The Oscar Williams and Gene Derwood Award), the Goethe Institute and grants from the NEA and NYFA. She has taught at Sarah Lawrence, The New School (Parsons), Queens College and LaGuardia Community College. She served as a Mentor for Emerge Surface Be, a new fellowship program at St. Mark’s Poetry Project and is a Senior Fellow at the Black Earth Institute, a progressive think tank.