Family History in Coleman’s Poetry

I was intrigued by “Another Strange Land: Downpour off Cape Hatteras, March, 1864” and “Negro Reverend of an All White Church” and the similarities between the two of them. Both are persona poems about Coleman’s ancestors, and in the descriptions of both poems he talks about learning more about his family’s history and highlighting Black history that is often erased. In an interview with the St. Louis Public Radio, Coleman said that poems “transform stories and memories into reflections, perhaps even epiphanies,” and in these poems what he’s transforming is his own family history and stories. I really like the idea of writing family history down in a poem format, especially considering that the relatives he’s describing are linked. Coleman’s great-grandfather who he speaks as in “Negro Reverend of an All White Church” is the grandson of his great-great-great-grandfather from “Another Strange Land,” meaning that the poems help connect different eras of family history. Furthermore, his Coleman’s use of  a persona makes the poems feel a bit like primary sources, making the family history feel more personal and accessible.

“Negro Reverend of an All White Church” also reminded me of Melba in Warriors Don’t Cry because of the reverend’s determination and spirituality. He ignores the white children’s harassment and instead asks God for help, much as Melba does when dealing with the harassment she faced at school. This sense of determination is also present in “Another Strange Land.” Coleman speaks as his great-great-great-grandfather and talks about his infantry bailing out their ship so they don’t sink, saying, “I say no to death now,” and “we the 25th/ Pennsylvania Colored Infantry, too alive and close to free/ to sink below this midnight water.” I think the determination shown in both these poems is especially interesting because their determination and survival is necessary in order for Coleman to exist.

You can find the interview with the St. Louis Public radio here.

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