The River: Civil Rights and the Poetry of John Beecher

 

RUBIN STACY LYNCHING
The body of 32-year-old Rubin Stacy hangs from a tree in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., as neighbors visit the site.

 

by Troy Casa

Some poets deserve a second chance. In the case of poet John Beecher, we need to re-examine his work in an effort to recalibrate our moral compass. This essay intends to elucidate, based on a few subjectively selected poems, the essence of Beecher’s message. It is not to be confused with a traditional literary biography but seen as an analytical pastiche that brings his message, through his worldview and cogently coined turn of phrases, back into our cultural consciousness.

When we look at John Beecher, we cannot dismiss nor discount his familial lineage, which includes seminal Abolitionists Lyman Beecher, Henry Ward Beecher and the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe. The poet carries them close to his heart and their lives help him formulate and construct his persona and poetic style.
John Beecher’s familiarity with the oeuvre of each is the subject for a later date. But given the families rich tradition and allegiance to abolition, civil rights, temperance, the Underground Railroad, women’s rights, etc, we can ascertain that the historical imperative, coupled with the untidy behavior of secessionist, racist and southern whites, particularly in Jim Crow Alabama, had a life-long effect on the poet and his work.

For this exercise, I have chosen to look at three of Beecher’s poems that express his disgust, pain and abhorrence for the American political ineptitude in handling racial violence and both social and human rights violations. Many of his poems are on par with short stories, running several (10+ pages) at times, so these excerpts are just that: small vignettes of a larger canvas. One could spend hours deciphering In Egypt Land, And I Will Be Heard, Report to the Stockholders, An Everyday Tragedy in Verse and Think It Over America, epic prose poems that many readers are generally not accustomed to consuming given their breadth and somewhat tedious pounding of the drum. Beecher is the voice, a champion for equality, that I think the Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and other contemporary political ideologies and movements could learn from, if nothing else, just hear him out, his poems are sadly rich with images, idiomatic language and the anger that ignites the same passions we are facing today.

In his poem, The Better Sort of People, Beecher creates a facetious southern white narrator that expresses false empathy for the plight of blacks in Mississippi. In doing so, his speaker is able to rationalize that he (and other white folks like him) treat their ‘Negroes’ better than Yankee northerners:

Our Negroes here are satisfied
They don’t complain about a thing
except the weather maybe
whenever it’s too cold to fish
for cat along the riverbank
But when they get away from here
up to Chicago or Detroit
and stay away awhile and then come back with notions
about the right to vote
or going to school with white folks
we sometimes have to get it through their heads
who runs this country
They’re better off down here
or why don’t they stay up yonder?
A lot of them keep coming back
but somehow they’ve been spoiled
and need the fear of God
thrown into them again
Mind you I’m against the kind of thing
the ignorant rednecks do
I think it was unnecessary
to beat that little Negro boy to death
and throw his body in the Tallahatchie
He was uppity
no doubt about it
and whistled at a white woman
He probably learned that in Chicago
so we ought to make allowances
A good horsewhipping should have been enough
to put him back into his place
and been sufficient warning to him that
if he ever got fresh again
he wouldn’t live to see Chicago
Those rednecks that abducted him
I doubt if even they
really meant to kill him when they started
working on him
They just got too enthusiastic
Like I say the better sort of people
down here in Mississippi
we love our Negroes
We wouldn’t harm them for the world
This violence you hear so much about
is all the fault of low-down rednecks
poor white trash

—John Beecher, Poems 1955-1960

I quote this poem in total, as it exemplifies the tenor, scope and style Beecher regularly works. And as the poem progresses, the reader, perhaps blinded by geographical bias, cultural awareness or just plain racism, is forced to take sides. Either one is a Yankee (anti-slavery, pro-integration, nonviolence) a southerner with the appearance of an evolving socially-adjusted consciousness (supports separate but equal and slow gradualism), or just plain stuck in Confederate-think (‘poor white trash’) circa 1862.
Beecher wants us to assign blame for activities of the lynch mobs. The speaker wants us to continue blaming blacks for trying to adopt Yankee values and have them equally acknowledged in the South.
Written in the summer of 1963, One More River to Cross, after several readings feels more and more like a public service announcement for Martin Luther King’s SCLC and their scheduled March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963. The poem, dedicated to John L. Salter Jr (son of John R. Salter aka Hunterbear, civil rights activist) curses those that;

hanged old Osawatomie Brown
for holding certain truths to be self-evident

and is particularly vitriolic towards Thomas J. [Stonewall] Jackson, who’s famous last words:

Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees

seem to have partially inspired the poem’s title. Certainly, MLK had used a very similar expression throughout his speaking tours as a symbolic talisman that would ultimately represent freedom for an oppressed people. Beecher’s rage against Jackson could have been inspired by the fact that Jackson, while prior to fighting for the Confederate cause, had actually assisted local blacks in securing Sunday School classes and was known to treat all blacks with dignity and respect:

‘Jackson neither apologized for nor spoke in favor of the practice of slavery. He probably opposed the institution. Yet in his mind the Creator had sanctioned slavery, and man had no moral right to challenge its existence. The good Christian slaveholder was one who treated his servants fairly and humanely at all times.’ [Robertson, Stonewall Jackson, p. 191]
But Beecher will have none of it, shaming Jackson for his apparent hypocrisy:

But it is still the second of December 1859
and you glowing with the vigor of a man in his prime
are watching while the body of Brown swings slowly
to and fro
in a cold wind off the mountains
for exactly 37 minutes before it is cut down

and in the opening line, the adverb ‘still’ shares Beecher’s chilling assessment of race relations in mid-20th century America. Quite frankly, nothing has changed, no one has been able to get across the river. As the poet transitions into the second part of the poem, he sees a glimmer of hope in King’s upcoming March.

This picture is likely the inspiration salter for Beecher’s imagery:

Now you my friend
so akin in spirit to the earlier John
I have been seeing your picture in the papers
your head anointed with mustard and ketchup
at the lunch-counter sit-in

The poet equates the dedicatee, John Salter (seen in the photograph being assaulted at a diner in Jackson, MS) with that of John the Baptist. He closes One More River to Cross with a vision, one of a messianic status, a modern-day Jesus Christ (presumably Martin Luther King) might be able to build a bridge, fjord the political divide hindering the advancement of racial equality:

Who knows but that some unpainted shack in the Delta
may house one destined to lead us the next great step of the way
From the Osawatomie to the “Potomac”
the Alabama Tombigbee Big Black Tallahatchie and Pearl
and down to the Mississippi levee in Plaquemines Parish
it’s a long road
better than a hundred years in traveling
and now the Potomac again

Lastly, a quick look at Their Blood Cries Out, a poem that illustrates the hypocrisy, the hatred, the lack of reason that motivated Beecher to use language in a way that challenges both the dominant paradigm, southern white supremacism, and the rather banal theoretical claims of FDR’s plan. Constructed as a triptych, Part I {Land} discusses the sad reality of a poor black sharecropper, illegally barred from claiming the land that was by right his property, and who was ultimately beaten by white men:

To teach him this was white man’s country
and when the three of them had worn themselves out
stripping the meat from his back
he was still not dead and they figured he might talk
so they cut his tongue out with a switchblade

He died
as his blood soaked into the earth

Beecher is at his best when he creates a truthful violent image to verbally condemn both the written politics that are under assault and the unwritten law of the land that, to this day, ‘still’ wreaks havoc on our divided selves. In closing Part I, the poet must include the sad fact that the death of the sharecropper has future consequences with the death of a child left to hunger. In Part II [Sea] Beecher tells the story of a black sailor, born and bred to live and fight in the Navy for his country after surviving a long arduous ordeal in a lifeboat for nine days lost at sea, to ultimately lose his life standing topside on deck during an air raid:

It was dusk when the planes struck
and he was at the wheel
he just slumped and that was all
until next day his corpse sewn in canvas
slid out from under the starry flag
into the wide sea he was born on

In Part III [Air, or God], Beecher asks the narrator to ask himself:

You ask me
what would I do if I were a Negro?

A question many of us ask ourselves daily about any number of possible vicarious trading places scenarios we create in our mind. What if I was Donald Trump or Bill Gates? What if I looked like Brad Pitt or Charlize Theron? Maybe some day I will dunk like LeBron James or run faster than Usain Bolt? But Beecher cares not for wealth, beauty, fleeting super-human-like-athleticism, he states in the simplest terms, our most basic, requisite task for being a sentient, compassionate and somewhat inspired person– force Americans to stop picking and choosing the pieces of the Constitution that they feel empowered to defend, all the while disregarding Jefferson’s (et al…) theological spirit and metaphysical intent of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The poet brazenly reaffirms his raison d’etre,

If I were a Negro
I would swear the same oath I am swearing now
to avenge these men
and all the men like them and the women and children
white black yellow and brown
whose blood cries out for vengeance
all over the world

Written twenty years before MLK, Stokely Carmichael and Malcom X really started to challenge the U.S government’s modus operandi on Civil Rights issues, it does raise the question of violence as a global strategy, perhaps more so than the slow legal gradualism that ultimately proved superficially effective. The verb ‘avenge’ has historically signified some sort of Roman conspiracy or family retaliation for a perceived moral wrong. For the poet, I think Beecher would insist that those of us not so socially enslaved have a moral obligation to make damn sure that we do our best to honor the adage, ‘the pen is mightier than the sword,’ avenge ourselves of the historical missteps we have made, and seemingly continue to make.

Let’s rethink John Beecher and his work. His blue-collar, idiomatic street-speak, littered with historically relevant social and cultural concerns, champions the poor and our huddled masses. He is a St. Francis of Assisi sent to our Hell of the South and what he reports should raise your hackles. Beecher’s poems are accessible to the masses, communicate and catalog a visceral expanse of human foibles, they are not meta-anything, not filled with unnecessary iconography, lack pretense in era of pretentious poetry that the average person rightfully cannot understand, his poems do not ask the reader to recalibrate their academic pedigree, or foreign language abilities, or make dubious syntactical leaps or question whether or not you know Andromeda is the daughter of Cassiopeia; what it does ask is, that the reader acknowledge he is aware that his entire family of brothers, can and do know exactly what the hell the poet is talking about and are consciously choosing not change any behaviors that might lead to greater economic equality, spiritual health or just plain common decency.

John Beecher is the mirror the American intelligentsia hid in the closet. Nowhere is he listed in Ian Hamilton’s Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry, Perkins’ A History of Modern Poetry, The Great Books Foundation’s Modern American Poetry, nor has he been granted a link on the Poetry Foundation website. Why have we forsaken John Beecher? What literary criteria has he failed to meet to be granted some serious reconsideration?

prentiss_taylor_christ_in_a

Here is an excellent summary of his life and work: Beecher Biography

 

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One comment

  1. The entire Beecher Family was a gift from God. Thank you for putting this together! This should be assigned in high school English classes!

    Like

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