"Red" by Geoffrey Philp @ NCTE's National Poetry Month
The term “red” or “redbone” or “yella” has had a long and dishonorable reputation in the Americas. The name has been applied to personages such as W. E. DuBois, Malcolm X, and Bob Marley. In fact, one of Bob’s earliest teenage romances was ended because the family did not want their daughter to be mixed-up with a “half-caste.” In other words, Bob Marley wasn't black enough for their family.
In literature and politics, “reds” have always been mistrusted on both sides of the racial divide. In The Black Jacobins, C.L.R. James recounts the many attempts of leaders such as Toussaint L’Ouverture to determine the allegiances of the mulattoes. In William Faulkner’s Light in August,” the novel explores the theme of miscegenation through the character of Joe Christmas. Indeed, the history of the “tragic mulatto” has been one of the perennial themes in the literatures of the Americas and in Eroticism, Spirituality, and Resistance in Black Women’s Writing, Donna Aza Weir-Soley traces the history of this idea in the work of writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, and Jessie Fauset.
It is within the context and current narrative that defines all “reds” as “house slaves” that I wrote “Red.” And although it may be argued that the ghazal, “Red” is similar to John Agard’s, “Half Caste,” the speaker in the poem turns away from the extremes of racial conflict and embraces his “red”ness.
Here is the text of the poem, an excerpt from Dub Wise, which will be published by Peepal Tree Press in September 2010.
It burst from those lips that I'd loved, "You're just too red!"
The curse of being apart, neither black nor white, but red
followed me through streets, staining the shadow
of those fires that flared behind my mother's garden: red
ginger towering over anthuriums with their bruised phalloi
straining against the bark of the live oak, stunned red
petals bending in sunlight to the weight of shame,
their pliant skin absorbing yellow and blue to become red
like the way by resisting we become the thing we fear most--
as I now accept this blessing freed from race. Call me Red.