This Land Was Made

Considering the soil that bears witness to America

This Winter 2020 feature was selected as an Editor’s Choice. 

 

we are each other’s
harvest:
we are each other’s
business:
we are each other’s
magnitude and bond.

              —Gwendolyn Brooks, “Paul Robeson”

 

WHEN I THINK OF my ancestral relationship to this land, I first think of the shark-infested waters between Africa and America and the damp bellies of pitched ships: kidnapped human beings packed as cargo; stench of vomit, feces, and afterbirth; tangled chains, uprisings and rebellions, suicide by drowning. Eventually, my mind drifts to the shore, gritty sand and jutting rocks, then to the land under me, stolen and unceded.

The soil of this land has been altered—altared—by blood, sweat, and tears falling from black and brown bodies. Even when I am not aware of this, I am aware of this. How many ways can we read the refrain, “This land was made for you and me”? How was this land made? Who was made to do the making? Who is the you? Who is the me?

Walking barefoot in my mother’s garden, pouring water from a makeshift bottle, I feel dirt sink under the soles of my feet. Every few steps, the jug feels lighter. I enter the house to refill the jug, and clean water pours, like a miracle, from the faucet. The screen door swings shut behind me, then my feet return to the earth.

The word soil communicates a sense of purpose. Soil means “we hope something will grow here.” And not just something, but a specific something, a something that will nourish us: red-veined chard, squash—once blossom, a seed turned trellised vine turned crimson tomato.

I water flowers whose names only my mother knows. I consider the soil of this country and what has soiled it, the blood that won’t come out. Even when I am not thinking of this, I am thinking of this. The sun is setting, it casts a pink hue across the clouds.

Glass jars of soil, deep browns and rusty reds, line five or six shelves at the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. Each jar contains soil collected from lynching sites. The jars are labeled with the date of the lynching, the name of the county where the lynching occurred, and the name of the tortured and murdered man, woman, or child—or, in some cases, the word Unknown. My mother visited this memorial of soil. To herself she read the names; she read the silences they left. A remembrance was made of this land, so that we might see, in the words of Mamie Till, “what they did to my baby.”

 

 

I have never seen the jars except in photographs. Even in photographs, the blood will not come out. I know my mother was thinking this, even if she was not.

It’s said that soil can become so dry it can’t absorb rain even when it finally comes.

I want the soil in my mother’s garden to keep water like a secret. I step on the face of the earth, tenderly, because the ground bares the faces of our beloved, murdered dead.

We altar the land. We create sites of mourning and remembrance on street corners and paint portraits of our murdered in mural-bright colors. We use our green thumbs to raise African violets, to pluck an heirloom Russian tomato, named for Paul Robeson’s gorgeous, dark skin. We cultivate a plot of city garden, or kitchen herbs, or acres and acres of farmland.

We pull weeds, again and again. Clean the dirt from under our nails. We begin to act as if what we know is true. As if we’re running out of time. As if this land was made for more than you and me.

We feel the earth bear our weight. We examine the roots of the problem.

We believe collective action can lead to systemic change. We believe this because our mother, who is alive and on this earth, was instructed by signs about which water fountain to drink from and which toilet to use; our mother, who is alive and on this earth, was not free. We know freedom must be fought for.

We wipe the sweat from our foreheads, look up at the dusk-colored sky, smell the storm coming our way. We remember the etymology of the word radical: “of or having roots.” We yank the roots, caked with soil, shake the soil back to the earth. We are radical. We water our mother’s gardens.

We hope something will grow here. We harvest what we can. O
  

Ama Codjoe is the author of Blood of the Air, winner of the Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize, and Bluest Nude (Fall 2022). Among other honors, she is recipient of a 2017 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award and a 2019 NEA Creative Writing Fellowship.

Comments

  1. Beautiful and very insightful thoughts about legacy , life and hope for the future.

  2. Such a personal heart warming essay. Life, death, birth and rebirth are so much a part of our lives. Brilliant!

  3. In this evocative piece, Ama Codjoe somehow balances soil’s essential function of sustaining life with its latent, and sometimes grisly, capacity to remember; in this case, something many would rather suppress or deny – the indelible molecules therein of this country’s long cultivation of a strange fruit, racism. Through her extended reflection, one suspects now even picking up a handful of earth will become itself a small act of remembrance. And a call – should we accept, to the necessary and strenuous tilling and sharing to become what we might yet be.

  4. Enjoyable, yet deep resonance of what the earth felt and still feel. Oh those chained members of our families. Yet we are still seen as intruders; the tears that fell when reading and reflecting cannot bring them back so I’ll try to live and be seen as a member of the people who by the grace of God did plant something to grow on this earth.

  5. Just yesterday I was discussing with my wife the notion of getting more serious about composting and gardening. It is a matter of returning nutrients to the soil, including all important carbon and nitrogen. If we practiced this indigenous lifestyle and truth, we may just help heal the earth and save ourselves and all our “relatives” too?! Mitákuye oyàsin, hozho naasha doo, beannacht.

    [translation: All are my relatives (Lakota), therefore I will walk in harmony (Navajo), blessed to be blessing (Irish).]

  6. This is a gorgeous , powerful and heartrending poem. Thank you also for the photos of the jars from the lynching ground, the colors of the dirt, the thoughts about soil, and planting, roots, attempting to heal.

  7. Moving us from our thoughts to the actuallty of human experienc and their rememberances. Thank you

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