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Alabama's next poet laureate writes searingly about race
Poet Ashley M. Jones stands for a portrait at the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham, Ala. on Oct 6, 2021. Jones, a native of Birmingham, was recently named Alabama’s poet laureate, a position she will hold from 2022 to 2026. She is the first Black person and, at 31, the youngest person to have the title in the 91 years Alabama has named a poet laureate. Kenny Holston/The New York Times.

by Tariro Mzezewa

NEW YORK, NY.- The poet Ashley M. Jones wants far more than financial reparations to compensate for centuries of slavery and its legacies — though she would take a check. To her, true reparations require an enormous cultural evolution.

“You think money can ever repay what you stole?” she asks in her third poetry collection, “Reparations Now!,” which was published in September. “Give me land, give me all the blood you ripped out of our backs, our veins.”

“Give me the songs you said were yours but you know came out of our lips first,” she writes shortly after. “Give me back Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. Give me back the beauty of my hair. The swell of my hips. The big of my lips. Give me back the whole Atlantic Ocean. Give me a never-ending blue. And a mule.”

Jones, a native of Birmingham, was recently named Alabama’s poet laureate, a position she will hold from 2022-26. She is the first Black person and, at 31, the youngest person to have the title in the 91 years Alabama has named a poet laureate, a notable moment in the history of a state that is still grappling with its history of white supremacy and recently banned the teaching of critical race theory, which argues that historical patterns of racism are ingrained in American law and other modern institutions.

Known for her piercing prose on Black womanhood, life in the American South and past and present-day manifestations of racism in Alabama, Jones has earned a slew of accolades. Although her poetry pulls from current events, pop culture and her memories of a happy childhood, she does not gloss over the painful parts of American history, the daily injustices faced by many African Americans or her own traumatic experiences. This honesty, according to the five-member committee that unanimously chose Jones for the post, is part of her appeal.

Charlotte Pence, director of the Stokes Center for Creative Writing at the University of South Alabama and chair of the poet laureate selection committee, said Jones’ broad, inclusive vision of poetry, which includes slam poetry, oral traditions and outsider art, won the group over.

“Jones is already an ambassador of poetry for the state and will elevate the visibility of all Alabama writers, including those who have been underrepresented in the state’s literary history,” the committee said in its announcement. So far, at least, her reception has been positive.

Jones’ poetry is clear in its indictment of a country, and particularly a state, whose laws have disproportionately harmed African Americans. Among the themes connecting the poems in “Reparations Now!” is a desire for repair — for the country, the state and individuals.

“Ashley is an amazingly relevant poet for today’s world,” said Jessica Jones, who is the vice president and program chair of the Alabama Writers’ Cooperative and not related to the poet. “She’s helping make poetry matter to these generations, in our current events, and to people from all walks of life.”

The appointment of a Black woman who is unflinching in her criticism of those in power, the censorship of Black history in schools, housing discrimination, police violence and the ways racism and white supremacy persist, is the latest example of the effort to elevate the experiences and work of Black Alabamians.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened in Montgomery in 2018, is dedicated to the victims of American white supremacy, including Black people killed by lynching. Nearby, the newly expanded Legacy Museum focuses on the legacy of slavery. And at the state Capitol, a committee is working to extract racist language from the Alabama Constitution.

Being named poet laureate is an exciting and complicated accomplishment for Jones, who has wanted to be a poet since she was a child.

“It is interesting to consider that it’s been almost a century without any person of color holding the position, and I do think that speaks to something that the whole nation needs to do to contend with,” Jones said.

Jones’ poetry has long wrestled with the friction between many Americans’ eagerness to see progress on race — a Black president, a record number of women of color in Congress — and the persistence of inequality in daily life.

“When we really look at the day-to-day lives of people of color in America, there hasn’t been this sweeping change that we like to pretend that we’ve had,” she said.

When she started writing “Reparations Now!” she did not yet know what the title would be, but she wrote what was on her mind: the condition of being Black in America.

In “The Kid Next to Me at the 7pm Showing of The Avengers Has a Toy Gun,” a boy talks and pretends to shoot his toy gun throughout the movie, and his boisterous behavior is chalked up to boys being boys. The boy “is, incidentally, about the size of Tamir Rice: is alive and will keep living — and wait do I need to tell you the color of his skin?”

Other poems, like “She Is Beauty, She Is Grace,” which is dedicated to Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Oluwatoyin Salau “and so many killed Black girls,” are about the ways Black women can be robbed of their personhood by society and by men, but they are also a window into her upbringing in a home where she was taught to take pride in her Blackness.

Growing up in Birmingham, Jones could not escape the feeling that in order to find success she had to leave home for a bigger city, so she moved to Miami to earn a Master of Fine Arts in poetry. She knew she would miss her family, but she did not anticipate that she would long for Alabama itself — the weather, the way life does not speed by as it does in bigger cities, the accents, the food. “Everything.” She returned home in 2015 and has been writing, teaching and gathering people around poetry since.

“The biggest thing that I learned moving away is that love is a complete word,” she said. “It’s not just, ‘I like this thing, it’s always good to me.’ Love means also understanding what’s wrong and committing to pointing that out and trying to change those things that are wrong. And that’s how I feel about the South.”

Her love of family and of Alabama and its people is what makes it possible for Jones to praise it and criticize it, and why she is able to, in the same beat, say that Alabama is beautiful and in desperate need of repair.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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