Scheduled for release on Juneteenth current North Carolina Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green‘s new album, The River Speaks of Thirst, features archetypal imagery and resonant elocutions, invoking the history of Black oppression as well as the US’s current societal and political climate calling for executive, legislative, and judicial reform. In her work, Green laments the Black struggle for equality while celebrating Black resilience, wisdom, and creativity.
On the opening poem, “This I Know for Sure”, Green voices the indelible imprints of the Black Diaspora (“unmeasurable bones whispering across the Atlantic Ocean”, “bellies of Middle Passage ships”, “the feast of dead or sick bodies tossed overboard”) while conjuring that tenable sense of promise presumably experienced by emancipated slaves: “we shed the rags of a slave into the river / our freedom skin was a shining / brand new nakedness that outshined the sun”. The poem is an invocatory ode to the ancestors and a bold reminder that the African American quest for freedom is an unfinished epic, still thwarted by white racist ideologies and attitudes, systemic racism, and convenient blindness; or, as James Baldwin phrased it, “monstrous innocence” shielded by privilege.
“Madwoman” depicts that distinct brand of decorum that frequently masks a deeply rooted prejudice, particularly in the South: “the smile that erases my smile / and swallows a whole room of dead patrimony”. Later in the poem, Green offers, “Your puke-stained flag is shredding / all over your sun-bleached constitution”, noting the ultimate mootness of the Confederate stance while highlighting a conditioned bias that, while perhaps addressed textually by the US Constitution and its Amendments, has yet to be dismantled in the country’s collective consciousness.
“A Litany for the Possessed” – featuring a guest recitation by poet and musician Shirlette Ammons – taps into trip-hop templates, Def Poetry Jam/spoken-word stylistics, and loose rap mechanics, honoring icons “malcolm ray miles martin charlie eldridge audre denmark sojourner … mahalia billie bessie … marcus gwendolyn kwame toussaint mohammad kente”. It features uber-Romantic lines such as “addicts with poems stuck between their teeth / join the night pray for a vampirical moon”, and channels proto-Beat sensibilities: “brothas on the down low sniffing for game / while sistas play diva bohemian princess sable goddess queen mother / high priestess of counterfeit on a corner”.
The virtuosic “Oh My Brother” is dedicated to “all of my brothers who have been silenced.” Multi-instrumentalist Alec Ferrell’s recurrent and mesmeric guitar riff drives the track. Green’s at-times unnervingly equanimous tone contrasts with the poem’s volatile imagery, including a chorus-like return to the central meme of “a bullet”. Green is alternately tender (“I want to be the water, the sweet oils that rub into the skin of you”) and confrontational (“I dare the killer of you to remember”). Toward the end of the poem, she strikes a complex emotional stance, paradoxically blending grief and rage: “hear the sounds in your chest become a roaring ocean, / hear the butterflies cease flying, / hear the silence that will not be quiet”.
“No Poetry” equates verse with justice, the aesthetic process with empathy, suggesting that where there is “no poetry”, there can be no vitality, substantial reform, or attunement to the suffering of others: “For the truth brewing inside crooked hallways,” snarls guest CJ Suitt, “crooked courtrooms / crooked jailhouses / no poetry / for the fog covering the blood / no poetry”. The piece continues, addressing the Caucasianization of God and Christ: “For your God who is always late to every funeral of every black child / no poetry”.
Green uses the final / title track of her album to wield the perennial river metaphor in universal terms. For Green, “we are all this flow / we are all this river”. In this way, she contemporizes Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers“, closing her project with a compellingly inclusive manifesto. She yearns to “feast from [the river’s] wet palms”, to “empty the veins of [her] life story / into this nameless pregnant river”. Green offers a vision of earthly and spiritual triumph both fiercely idealistic and grounded in realism, her crystalline oration echoed by Nnenna Freelon’s melodic moans, at times reminiscent of a woman giving birth.
The River Speaks of Thirst is at once a political statement, cultural commentary, and an aesthetic milestone, a skillful commingling of galvanic activism and evocative poetry. Released at a time during which the chronicity of Black oppression is being spotlighted, when millions of citizens across the US and throughout the world are protesting for change, and organizations such as Black Lives Matter, Black Alliance for Just Immigration, and Color of Change are gaining significant traction, the project is particularly timely. With The River Speaks of Thirst, Jaki Shelton Green documents the history of blackness, a segment of which is the history of the United States, if not the Americas at large – the atrocities, the triumphs, and the work still to be done.
Jaki Shelton Green’s The River Speaks of Thirst releases 19 June on Soul City Sounds.