Alabama's First Black Poet Laureate Takes A Personal Approach To 'Reparations'
The state of Alabama has a new poet laureate: Ashley M. Jones is the first Black poet to claim the title, and at 31, also the youngest.
Jones is honored, but says she has a long-standing love-hate relationship with Alabama and her hometown of Birmingham.
Growing up, she had a visible reminder of the racism that permeates much of Birmingham's history. Her high school was "just steps away" from the site of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.
In 1963, members of the Ku Klux Klan set off a bomb under the steps of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church — a centerpiece and rallying place for the city's African American community. The explosion killed four little girls.
"And knowing that this place was a place where Black people were killed and terrorized and not allowed to live full lives under the law tainted [the city] a little bit," she says.
Here's an excerpt from her poem "All Y'all Really From Alabama":
we the scapegoat in a land built
from death. no longitude or latitude disproves
the truth of founding fathers' sacred oath:
we hold these truths like dark snuff in our jaw,
Black oppression's not happenstance; it's law.
Years ago, Jones felt she had to leave Birmingham to make something of herself, to become a writer — and to escape the city's past. She moved to Miami for grad school, but has been back in Birmingham since 2015.
"A part of that mindset of self-hatred, I think, might be something that a lot of Southerners or maybe Americans in general have," she says of the racist history in the region. "And I think if we transition to a mindset of self-love on the state level, the city level, and even our personal selves, we'll get a lot closer to the liberation that we all actually need."
Reparations Now! is the title of Jones' latest book of poems, out Sept. 7.
"This book is full of poems that are about the need for repair," the poet says. "Not only our country, which needs to repair from all of the horrors that it has been through and that it has caused — specifically for my people, for Black people — but also repair on a personal level."
Jones explores this personal angle on reparations in her new book by dissecting discrimination she's faced in her own life against examples of historic violence against Black people.
"So even though I'm writing about me — Ashley — who experienced something in 2020 or 2021, I am also bringing along with me those four little girls, or Sandra Bland, or whatever has happened that speaks to my identity."
In one poem, Jones goes outside of Alabama, with a reference to Oregon's first Black exclusion law: "That city in that American state which legally excluded Black residents in 1844, which entered the union, big, proud, and white." In that same poem she writes, "I think about the man who called me colored at a hotel in 2019. I think about the N-word out of a white person's mouth."
For Jones, reparations means addressing the injustices of the past to hold people accountable for today's actions.
Poetry has played that reparative role in much of her life. This year, Jones acted as guest editor for the renowned Poetry magazine — which has faced various controversies since last summer, starting with an open letter signed by hundreds of poets accusing the magazine and its publisher, the Poetry Foundation, of not doing enough to support the Black Lives Matter protests or financially support poets from marginalized populations.
Jones says she took on the role with the magazine "to enter this space and open up a little corner or maybe more for people who feel like they have not been represented." The poet is proud of her work and says almost everyone included in her three guest-edited issues were new to poetry.
Ultimately, that creation of space where it is lacking is part of what Jones means by reparations. She says it's not just about financial repairs.
"What I mean when I say reparations is that I want what we are owed," she says. "Which means for me as a Black person, I want to be able to walk into a room with my hair however it is fixed, with my skin as dark or as light as it is, and not feel immediately targeted."
Jones hopes that her book — and her work as poet laureate — will help shift that perspective.