A. Van Jordan




INT—Newsreel of D.W. GRIFFITH in his library at home after the release of his biggest financial success, Birth of a Nation. 1915.

D.W. Griffith

This story surprises even me: Birth of a Nation, arrives forged from a love story, and ignites controversy across the country. Between a man and a woman bred in southern soil, who could eclipse its importance with the cloud of race hovering over their destiny, with the world watching Elsie (Lillian Gish) fall into Ben’s, (Henry Walthall’s) on-screen kiss? The public—largely in the north, it seems—sets sanctity aboil. I want the light of the south to shine across a unified nation, shine to awaken the magnolias and cypresses in the chests of men who believe in the virtues of womanhood. This is in defense of the couple with a thousand eyes beating down upon them: Elsie and Ben, entwined as the south, under Klieg lights, burning with survival, attempts to end this feud from beneath flash powder and smoke. Ben wants to protect his lover without losing his brother in the North. Elsie wants the world to stop fighting and allow her to marry. They, sepia toned and sure-footed, take on a world full of harsh colors. They take on the mantle of manners representing the country from which they’re bred. The bougainvillea, the kudzu and the cotton, embroils the North and the South, distends the bond till it bursts into flame. Sometimes the link comes so close, sometimes it’s so beautiful in the exchange, neither believes the other deserves the union. When the passion implodes, we call it Civil War. The soldier on his journey goes back and forth, advancing and retreating, covering ground for brother and sister; no one knows who’s the enemy and, after a while, no one cares but the fallen bodies carpeting the field. All seems found just as all seems lost, till both sides push their passion to a point of rest. As he falls, he sees her—in a photograph or a memory or a dream of regret—all while a hint of sweat, just a touch slides down her breast, gently wiped away by some devil’s finger, pointing north.

CUT TO: EXT—FLASHBACK—Porch of home in Gregory, SD, of OSCAR MICHEAUX, farmer and Negro novelist. He contemplates his affection for and relationship with his Scottish neighbor’s daughter, SARAH. 1908.

Mixed Couple, 1908

Oscar to Sarah

Once I glanced at—I admit, a second too long—a hint of sweat, just a touch on your breast—once I bought the land from your father, once he named the fairest price offered to me from anyone in the county, and once it became clear that he respected me as a man should respect other men—like your reflection in water, which you admire but prefer not to disturb—I knew the spirit of your house embraced me like family. I changed. Talking to you now sends me to think of our night in shadow, first of many to follow, on which I came ‘round back of your house under your window, hiding from your father’s gaze, he doesn’t know—at least I don’t think he does, but his eyes—and he would not mind, really, but… rest that thought: I only remember his eyes. His eyes of Atlantic Ocean and onyx stone, of forgiveness and regret. His stares assure that folks down the road would nest not like robins but like buzzards. I see them daily here in Gregory, SD, in Kansas City, MO, in Greensboro, NC, through the south and the north: men on every corner to slit our throats, the two regions are more united than Griffith would lead us to believe, this journey of us—if lucky: the world builds gallows, after all—waiting for a world in which we’re free enough to hold each other; but, for now, its worse for mixed couples, a true test of the country’s union and reconstruction, of our fearful dream. The true sleep of pain, the true nightmare rises not from sleep but from glowers across a room, from refusal of service at restaurants, from befriending enemies who are not friends of our union, from this person we encounter daily who is a dream of fear, or maybe a nightmare. I live them by day, a riddle: what promises freedom and then denies me a suit fitting in a haberdashery? To some, this may sound cavalier for a Negro, even critical of northern freedom, yet, it’s a small freedom to ask, but it can play like a child on my mind and gut as I strain to walk in my country like a man through it all. This shows how we dare thrive day-to-day, person-to-person, through trials won, and verdicts we survive, looking each other in the eye as we speak, walking trails as we enjoy the night sky, or holding hands not in public but in the near safety of our home. Don’t tell me stay open to the dream we share as it builds over time; tell me time builds a dream we can share in the open.

photo by Thomas Sayers Ellis

CUT TO: INT—Living Room of Oscar Micheaux with his first motion picture camera. He decides to make a film of one of his novels, The Homesteader. 1918.

Discovering the Camera

Oscar Micheaux

There’s a likeness between the eye and the world over which it peers—the same striking image in dreams as in our daily lives, the same trials won and verdicts we survive—the same forked tongues branching into truth and deceit: something truer than the close up of the girl in the frame, something more false than her face caught off camera; than the life in which we live: where makeup becomes beauty, and a hero becomes flawless, and a gun becomes messiah, and a man against an army of men becomes myth, and all honest-pay-for-a-day’s work and all cards-up-a-dealer’s-sleeve, become a reflection in a single mirror.

Nevertheless, with the camera comes a feral tool: its lens increases scrutiny, a focus as two-faced as Juno; and, now intrigued, evolves to the moving picture by way of its roving eye: finally we find a means to view others without the shame of gawking; we adore the reflection of light through a lens in a dark theater.

We view actors with the heart of a secret admirer viewing the neck of she who he cannot kiss, but breaking and renting fantasies; the pillar of art, yet a shaky pillar; an embrace with an angel, which on second glance looks more like a match between wrestlers, which brings our blood to the surface, which cuts off our breath, which overshadows with soft shoe and piano, which brings the mob to their feet and their hands to applause.

This isn’t about the dutiful wife who makes robes from the white sheets; it isn’t about the father worried his daughter might love out of her race; it isn’t about the book by Thomas Dixon clutched both in the hands of the illiterate and the teacher; not about the man forcing the woman under the knife; it isn’t about finding a rope to adorn the neck; it’s not about the murder we could not solve.

This is the one about the dreamer who breaks convention; the one about the electrician who becomes a best boy; the one about the seamstress who makes the costumes; the one about the guy with the razor who edits the film; the one about the Pullman Porter who sets the props in the scene; the one about the farmer who, finally, puts down his hoe, picks up the camera, and, after he can’t take it anymore, tells his story.



Store-front windows boarded;
furniture on the curb; litter;
a new haircut; a speech to give;
a pair of shoes, a hole in each…
sometimes, through it all, I hear choirs singing
like a fleet of birds taking off for flight,
arrowheads and fractals in the sky
piercing the air. Sometimes the absence
of smoke coming from a factory
arrests me mid stride, still, waiting to see
how I might bring back the fire
to assembly lines in my mind;
I draw the blueprint, the idea,
geometric and heartfelt; I mystify myself
with means and structure,
past and present moments.
A town’s applause, spondaic
in my ears, leaves me
with a lump of gratitude in my throat.
Later, I rub their tokens of good fortune
in my palms: A gambler’s chit, a silver charm,
a memorial bracelet for a fallen soldier,
a Hindu monkey god, a Madonna.
What comes from me trembling
was not the trombone’s blare
but the child’s cry; I translate
this into my country’s conscience;
I translate that into a global sunrise.
And stepping off the plane
onto another tarmac, my breath
turns white already this season;
I try to warm the words
before they reach those assembled,
those in person and in my heart.
Sometimes I step out among them,
like a young man wading out into the deep;
sometimes I step out among them
like an old man on a frozen lake.
Not surprising, the song of workers is another song
above the applause. When my chest fills
with silences, when I think silence
has taken over the space, I hear them;
I press my ear against them;
their hymn rings like conch shells
filled with golden numbers
from the shores of my hometown.


A. Van Jordan is the author of Rise (Tia Chucha Press, 2001), which won the PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Award and selected for the Book of the Month Club from the Academy of American Poets. His second book, M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A (W.W. Norton & Co., 2004), was awarded an Anisfield-Wolf Award and listed as one the Best Books of 2005 by The London Times. Jordan was also awarded a Whiting Writers’ Award in 2004 and a Pushcart Prize in 2006, 30th Edition. Quantum Lyrics was published July 2007 by W.W. Norton & Co. He is a recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship (2007), and a United States Artist Williams Fellowship (2008). He is a Professor in the Department of English at the University of Michigan. The first time he ever read a poem in public, it was at It's Your Mug.


Published in Volume 10:2, Spring 2009.