This is the fifth in a series of features highlighting the Black writers our editors and staff have been reading. To read The Common’s statement in support of the nationwide protests against anti-Black racism, white supremacy, and police brutality, click here.
semiautomatic by Evie Shockley
Recommended by Elizabeth Witte, Associate Editor
Several years ago, I was fortunate to hear Evie Shockley read from “the topsy suite” and other poems at the time forthcoming, now very much out in the world. (In advance of that event, Shockley shared with our readers “haibun for a parasitic pre-apocalyptic blues,” which is also included in the collection.) So this summer, on the 4th of July, when I read semiautomatic cover to cover, I had the happy privilege of having the poet’s voice and presence in my mind.
The poems in this volume are forceful and playful, seductive and sharp as they turn our eyes, ears, and minds to the violence and injustice imposed upon Black Americans. Shockley interweaves past and present narratives as she plays with form and employs space and punctuation and repetition in ways that force us to rethink the language in front of us—how it looks and sounds and works, what it really means, and how that meaning reverberates through each of us. She wields visual and aural rhymes that force the reader to engage with the page, to face the writing on these paper walls and discern one’s place within these structures: who suffers, who is grieving, and who is culpable.
We are fortunate to have Evie Shockley’s poems as guide and medium through which we may reexamine the past without blinking, and look clear-eyed at the present and toward a forthcoming, yet to be fully formed, future. Or, as Shockley puts the challenge in “a one-act play:” “create a livable world.”
Recommended by Emily Everett, Managing Editor
In Wandering in Strange Lands, Morgan Jerkins travels around the US and across centuries, searching through her family history. There’s no easy summary for what she finds: surprises, complications, dead ends, dots that don’t connect. When Jerkins is struggling to establish her family’s possible Cherokee lineage, she writes, “I started to lose hope. I wondered how it would feel if African American families were more whole, if there weren’t so many gaps in my family’s memories. But isn’t that indicative of how much we survived in spite of it all? Weren’t those gaps the purpose of my trip?”
These gaps and gray areas create space for Jerkins’s rich, nuanced exploration of African American history and culture over the last 300 years. Her research grows and expands in the memoir form, existing alongside countless personal histories: her own of course, but also those of the many people who assist in her travels and research. Their experiences shade the reader’s understanding of each new region—the Lowcountry of Georgia and South Carolina, as well as parts of Louisiana, Oklahoma, and California.
A central theme of Wandering in Strange Lands is how the simple binary of white and Black belies the diverse, complex Black heritage that exists in America. “There is no black American who is 100% black,” Jerkins writes. “Because blackness has nothing to do with blood purity. We became black through systems.” Jerkins explores many Black cultures in the U.S.: Gullah Geechee, Creole, Cherokee Freedmen, and more. But generations of life in a white-dominated society, lived within white-run systems, have flattened these complexities. Jerkins identifies her own discomfort with finding free people of color, and even Black slave owners, in her family’s past. “My blackness is as much tied to my phenotype as my systemic disenfranchisement,” she writes. “If at one time some of my ancestors weren’t as disenfranchised, then that would make me unravel. But then again, why was I binding blackness and oppression together?”
Nothing feels like history, really, in this book, because it’s never hard to see the modern ramifications. Often this is because earlier oppressions have simply evolved into modern ones: redlining, police brutality, land loss deliberately caused by overtaxation and zoning bylaws. They are logistical and prosaic: a waste treatment plant built on the site of a historic slave uprising, or a $3 entry fee Gullah Geechee people must pay to white landowners on Hilton Head Island, just to visit and honor ancestors in their family cemeteries. History doesn’t feel like the past here because Jerkins chronicles the centuries-old traumas that live on in Black families to this day, passed through generations. There is no comfortable space here, no safe distance from which to regard the injustices of earlier eras. “Reconsideration is what history is all about;” Jerkins writes. “History doesn’t care what you feel.”
How Are You Going to Save Yourself by J.M. Holmes
Recommended by Olive Amdur, Editorial Assistant
In the action-packed climax of “Toll for the Passengers,” one of the nine stories in J.M. Holmes’s How Are You Going to Save Yourself, he writes, “I heard only gentle waves, or water, or maybe it was just the hum of the city turning on lights in the night—currents of electricity burning to get away.”
These intertwined stories trace four friends—Gio, Rolls, Rye, and Dub—who meet as Rhode Island teenagers and come of age as Black men in this hostile and complicated America. Every action, conversation, and place Holmes describes along the way is filled with an energy like those currents of electricity: raw, surprising, and breathtaking at each peak.
In the opening story, Holmes writes, “Buñuelos and ramen hot enough to peel the weed film off our tongues—that was high school… I got two chicken empanadas and a potato one for Rye.” Just as Gio knows Rye thinks potato empanadas fill you up more, we come to see the way the four friends carry with them close knowledge of the others: their families, partners, loves, the things that make them mad and those that hold them together. Holmes captures in this closeness what it means to live with people who are, at once, the past and the present.
I reread Holmes’s sentences to listen to the beats of his phrasing and the rhythms of his characters’ intimacy. Holmes speaks about learning to craft words through music: rap and R&B and their unique poetries. “Toll for the Passengers” opens with a quote from Kendrick Lamar, and the reflections on love and masculinity in Frank Ocean’s music are woven through each piece. This collection taught me what it means to really listen to the shaping of narratives.
Judith Frank, the Amherst College professor Holmes and I now share, talks often about the importance of honest writing: work unabashed in the strength of its criticism and imagination. Professor Frank named James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. I add Holmes’s musicians Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean to that list, for they bare themselves in each lyric. I also add J.M. Holmes, whose work in this collection pulses with brutal, beautiful sincerity.