Monday, May 14, 2012

Marilyn Nelson on "Called Up," "Your Own," and "Making History"

These three little unrhymed sonnets are part of a sequence of fifty sonnets about my childhood as the daughter of an African American officer in the U.S. Air Force during the 1950s. I’m a Baby Boomer, born in 1946; the sequence begins with my childish understanding of the reasons my dad, who had graduated from air cadet school at Tuskegee Institute toward the end of WWII, been discharged at the end of the war, and was enrolled in law school, was called back to military service during the Korean Conflict. These poems are embedded in the Red Scare and in the first rumblings of the ground-swell Civil Rights Movement. Yet they offer a young child’s limited understanding.

The project began as a desire to imitate a delightful little book I read several years ago, Love, Loss, and What I Wore , by Ilene Beckerman, in which a woman’s wardrobe serves as a time capsule of her life. That book has since been used as the basis for a wildly successful play written by Nora and Delia Ephron. But when I started writing my project, I was still in love with the relation between clothing and memory, and I spent some time researching the project by paging through bound volumes of popular magazines from the Fifties, taking notes about what was happening, and about the clothes worn in the ads.

Another source of these poems is a book by one of my friends, Inge Pedersen, a Danish poet and fiction writer. Inge’s most recent book, Til Amerika, is a collection of short fiction pieces about her girlhood during the years Denmark was occupied by the Nazis. At one point when we were together recently, either in her home or in mine, Inge told me that the stories in this collection work because they are in the voice of a young child; that each of the stories is built around a gap in the child’s understanding. She said they were a joy to write, and suggested I try to do something similar.

One aspect of the world my poems describe is the pervasiveness of the military hierarchy, which extends to the children. None of my childhood friends were the children of non-commissioned personnel. We were all children of officers. This meant that, since so few commissioned officers were African American, almost all of my playmates were white. My mother was a very race-proud woman; she was passionate about Negro history; she came from a very proud family of individuals who knew they were making history. She wanted us to know that pride. That’s in the background of the poem called “Your Own.” A little note about “Making History”: my mother was born and raised in one of the few all-Negro towns in the country, and she was quite proud of the fact that her sister, Miss Charlie Boyd Mitchell, was the first Negro telephone switchboard operator in the country.

This collection, called Blue Footsies, will be illustrated and marketed as a young adult book to be published by Dial Books for Young Readers in 2014.