As a young black woman coming of age, Alora Young traced her life through generations of Southern women.
She is 19 years old and is the current Young Poet Laureate of the Southern United States. His first book Walk to the House of Nobility archives his family history – and the legacy of slavery in the American South – in the form of a memoir in verse.
Here is the very first poem in the book, titled “Mother, TN, Many Many Generations”:
I have many mothers
They are mostly black
They are mostly broken
They’ve been here for centuries
They die with the cities that birthed them
“I started the book that way because I feel like it’s a story that doesn’t have a starting point,” Young told NPR. morning edition. “For thousands of generations, black women have existed on this planet and the whole culmination of thousands of women has led me to be here.”
In the book, Young tells the stories of nine generations of women – starting with Amy, who was the first of Young’s ancestors to arrive in West Tennessee.
Amy was enslaved and had a child with her slaver. The book takes readers through all of the stories that follow, leading into Young’s own story of becoming a young woman.
On how the book was built
It always had to be about my family history, because those poems weren’t about me. They started out not knowing the names of my family members, about losing my grandmother, and thinking about the hardships she had to go through as a pregnant teenager in the South in the 1960s. is [about] the brutal realities my family members faced, and I wanted to make sure their stories were never forgotten.
In fact, I interviewed every living woman in my family. I did a lot of genealogical research, and once I reached a point where I couldn’t learn anything from the records, I sat down and called all the living women in my family and interviewed them. . We had wonderful conversations and honestly, I feel so much closer to the women in my family now because of this book.
On Gentry’s story
When my grandmother Gentry was 14, she got pregnant. And then of course, she got married. One day she had a fight with my great-grandfather Walter Dean. She traveled all the way from her home with her husband, miles and miles to her first family home, where she grew up. She gets there, and her mom says “oh hey” and they spend the day together and she hangs out with her brother. And at the end, Gentry says, “Mom, I want to go home.” Then Nanny Pearl, who is Gentry’s mother, says, “Okay, Ortho B, walk Gentry home.” Can you imagine the shock of thinking you’re home, thinking you’ve finally returned to your family, only to be told that the house you grew up in is no longer your home? She said, Ortho B, walk your sister to the house she’s building. I think it’s so powerful because I think it’s the transition from girl to woman. It’s walking from the house you grow up in to the house you create.
On exploring colorism and abuse in his poetry
I don’t know if this is an issue that all fair-skinned women of color face, but it’s something that I know me and my other sister have definitely experienced. And it’s the feeling that when you look in the mirror, you see that the color of your skin is the product of the unsolicited attention of people who have enslaved your family. And I watch as I watch not because either of my parents is white by consent, but because my lineage is filled with non-consensual whiteness. And that’s honestly a hard thing to think about, and it’s a hard thing to live with, because nobody wants to look at themselves and see rape. But it’s just a reality I have to live with, and it’s something I see when I look in the mirror.
And I want to make sure that in discussing this unsettling feeling that I’m feeling, I’m not dismissing the struggles of darker-skinned women. But for me, darker skin has always been a symbol of true beauty because my mother has brown skin and I see her as the embodiment of all that is good, gentle and compassionate.
On the role of poetry in recording painful history, but also in breaking this cycle
I believe poetry is such a powerful tool because it can convey human experience in a way that no other type of writing can. And I believe we can use this art form as a tool for education and communication. I believe poetry is something that can cross any line, any border. And I think we have to try to cross those lines and those borders and connect our world through the arts because we can make the world a better place.
This story was produced by Jeevika Verma and edited for radio by Reena Advani.