I thought I would post this exactly as Julie Dunaway sent it, inclusive of her introduction and comments. It reminds us all of the original intent of the contest: to share our experience growing up in a racist society, whether as victim, survivor, perpetrator, or passively oblivious. Most people have sent in a story about their own experience, some invented stories inspired by the prompt, some wrote poetry; still others blended editorializing with their own experiences. Julie is one of the few who simply has written an essay on the topic, flourished by a very short story of her own and the poetry of of another. Here it all is:
by Julie Dunaway
The Drinking Fountain: Healing History
A Word with You Press | Editor Thornton Sully
November 10, 2017
“In under 500 words, tell us a story about your own encounters growing up with racism, either as perpetrator, victim, or passive vessel accumulating poison a drop at a time. Alternately, write an essay this small, cruel monument [the pictured racist drinking fountain plaque] compels. Or write a poem of healing…”
Sometimes the heartbreak and tragedy are too great to bear. The horrors of what people can do, and have done, to each other while in the iron grip of racism can be beyond comprehension. I woke up one morning years ago – my alarm clock was set to a radio station – and the first song I heard but had never heard before was Billie Holiday’s refrain “Strange Fruit.” I could appreciate the telling and description of this terrible part of our history, right up to almost heaving everything up in sheer nausea off the side of the bed.
History needs to be told. And told again, and again and again. And along with it, to help face it, a poem or poetry of healing as well. Of healing, spiritual inspiration and beauty. Of images that can bring tears but for the very best of reasons. I face the nightmares when I can and turn to healing when I can’t anymore. Sometimes the kind of thoughts below have helped.
* * *
Sunrise of a Black Dawn
The Oklahoma rose – first rose up, before all other roses along our rustic, wooden backyard fence. One of the darkest roses on the American continent; red sun rising, before all other beings.
Perhaps though long ago, the red sun did not rise before anyone else. Perhaps in a time before written history, in the very early part of morning, when the night was still deeper than dawn, a dark, sinewy hunter might have run through the darkness of those early hours, running steadily with sharp spear in hand and carved bracelets on the other, dark bare feet steadily pounding yet lightly treading, moving rhythmically over the hard, dusty ground, only sweat for drink and dust yet for food, running steadily in the chill of predawn.
Perhaps in such a way, in that time and place, people lived and moved before the red sun rose…
“What is Africa to me?” asks Countee Cullen in his poem “Heritage,” written in 1926.
What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?
* * *
Sunrise (and all too often, the sunrise) was a long time coming, as they say. Recently while reading Maya Angelou’s book Even the Stars Look Lonesome (1997), I came across that first stanza of Cullen’s poem, page 13. I can’t remember now if that singular part inspired me to write Sunrise, or if I already had the picture in mind and thought that amazing first stanza, if only part of a whole, to include with it.
Have to note as well the inspiration behind the image of a dark rose, as it has its own story. While perusing (of all things) a furniture décor store, I encountered the poetry of a man whose name is lost to me now, but whom wrote a powerful tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. The work was presented on a wall covered with artwork of African and African-American themes. The tribute was epic but I also fell in love with the name of the printer: Black Rose Publications.
When I was a senior in high school, my classmate and friend Chip passionately loved listening to Peter Gabriel’s music. We’d frequently listen to it in his room while we talked about musical expressions and styles. I learned from him that Gabriel, who was particularly engaged by the sounds of African musical rhythms and instruments at the time, had traveled to Africa to set up studios to not only assist local musicians in their careers but also to learn from them as well. Somewhere in there, sometime during the conversation, I thought up the phrase “black dawn,” as in the dawning of humanity. He seemed to like it when I told him. I think he asked if he could use it in the future for a song lyric. I don’t know if he ever did, but I’m pleased to finally use it in the title of this essay.
I like this long-term flowering. I like the histories behind the art and the activism. I hope to have more pieces grow in this way, and to chronicle and celebrate that growth, in the future.
I can’t say this is, per our good editor Thornton’s instructions, the best thing I’ve ever written. Can’t say whether it can place in the contest, either for inherent quality or because I included the writing of someone far, far better at it than me (it’s more important to share someone else’s poetry than to win anything, I think). To keep fighting means you keep writing; to that endeavor I wanted to contribute here. So that someday even cast-iron plaques that serve as monuments of hate have rusted away to nothing, become nothing beneath the great and beautiful flowering of poetry and perspectives and societies that have flourished far beyond it.