Russell Goings. The Children of Children Keep Coming:
An Epic GriotSong. Simon and Schuster, 2009.
Reviewed by Kwame Dawes
Rosa Parks is the unlikely heroic figure—a kind of oracle—in Russell Goings’ ambitiously epic public anthem in verse to the history of the African-American experience. Goings does not go all the way back—he finds purchase in the nineteenth century, really, at the point when the enslaved people of America can begin to imagine an idea called freedom. Then two hundred and seventy pages of verse—a mixture of song, chant, sermon, lament—unfold with a story that is one of voices, a story marked by blues improvisations, reinventions of standard icons of American freedom like the “Star Spangled
Banner” and “America the Beautiful.”
He vamps on these songs, and through the brilliance of improvisation, he lays bare their hypocrisies and contradictions, while somehow finding a way to celebrate their aspirant glory and grace. This is actually when Goings free-form verse, his assonance and rhyme, his repetition and choric chants, is at its best. This is when he manages to surprise us with irony and with a rich store of language.
The ambitiousness of the project is not subtle—it is laid out in the starkest of terms. Goings will find a way to bring into the extended song the names of people he clearly sees as heroes or at least important: Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, John Brown, W.E.B. Dubois, Booker T Washington, and Marcus Garvey (all of whom do a kind of cameo in the piece when Rosa Parks berates them for not coming together and finding common ground as giants), and the list includes athletes, writers, musicians, actors, and so on.The book is back-ended by a glossary of tidily
written biographies of many of these figures.
Yet the figures that serve as the most evocative of the poem are Jim Crow and his crows. Goings latches onto an idea of the crows in such a way that they seem to be hopping around the entire poem, disturbing, pecking at the flesh of the wounded, badgering, cawing, and creating the kind of havoc and pain for the African Americans that becomes, indeed, the consistent line of the entire poem.
Of course, I describe Rosa Parks as an unlikely voice in this poem because Goings quite boldly chooses to grant her the kind of foresight and authority that we normally would not associate with her, even as we recognize the importance of her defiant act. But for Goings it is Rosa Parks’ unwillingness to give up her seat that becomes the fulcrum of his entire poem. Goings, who achieved unlikely success as an African American working as a stockbroker on Wall Street in the 1950s, and who describes himself as the “caretaker” of an impressive body of art by the great African American artist Romare Bearden (some of them line drawings that are used as illustrations for this very attractively designed volume), believes completely in the symbolic and actual moment of defiance that Parks demonstrated in her refusal to get up and take a seat in the back of the bus. Indeed, Parks finds her fullest realization in the short third movement of the poem, which happens to be the most realized sequence of remarkably resonant and fresh verse—free of cliché and pure bombast that at times slips into the first two
The Children of Children Keep Coming is subtitled an “Epic GriotSong,” a coinage referring to the tradition of griots that exists in West Africa—the public and communal poet who serves a role of keeping the traditions and histories of the tribe, of announcing the important occasions of life through verse, of prophesying, praying,
and leading in lamentations that have to be made for the community. Here the poet, while allowed a certain peculiar freedom of thought, exists to serve the tribe, the community, the nation, and that role is one he inherits from his father and from his father’s father and so on. Goings decides to invoke a clearly African tradition to describe his project, but in so doing, he tries to employ the kind of language and discourse that can achieve that communal value that I think he is seeking ultimately.
It is hard to miss the influence of Langston Hughes in these poems and, perhaps even more strongly, the kind of language and thrust that we see in James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombone. But what Goings is able to put to great effect is his unquestionable rhythmic skill, his ability to create the meter and breath of sermon and speech that achieves a funky energy that makes this poem attractive and hard to resist, even as we find ourselves wrestling with his uninvestigated commitment to the idea of America as a land of manifest destiny, a land of distinctive democratic values. It is in this sense that Goings’ poem, particularly the final movement, “Celebration go Survival,” is the perfect Fourth of July poem—it is the crows, he proposes, who have taken the idealism of American democracy and perverted it. Those crows will be run off by the stone-throwing freedom fighters—symbols of American survival—allowing, at last, America to be America again.
Of course, I come at my America in quite different ways—ways unique to my personal history—as do most Americans. Recently, my son, a nineteen-year-old who was born in South Carolina, was reflecting in an op-ed piece about the Fourth of July. He was expressing discomfort at the commercialism and easy jingoism of American patriotism. He said that he distrusted that kind of patriotism that branded anyone who expressed rage or sadness about what America has done and continues to do to others as unpatriotic. He pleaded for a more complex and sophisticated idea of patriotism, one that was honest and willing to speak of those things that are not pretty and those things that are. He was wrestling with his Americanness in a way that I have never had to and probably never will. But reading Goings reminded me of my son. I imagine that he would find Goings to be doing exactly the thing that he has appealed for in his op-ed piece. He shows the ugliness of American racism, but predicates it all on a complete faith in the idea of America—in the notion that America was founded on principles that ran counter to the actions of the crows. It is a lovely notion. It is a notion of ownership and
For me, though, those crows were not side players in the narrative of America. Those crows signed the Declaration of Independence. Those crows are still convinced that this is their America. Maybe Goings agrees. Perhaps this is what leads him away from the particular appeal to Americanness and American freedom in the final lines of the poem, to something broader, something that one might even call spiritual or “universal”—resting the justification for freedom not so much on the American constitution, if you will, but on the idea of human rights—global human rights. Rosa Parks, his oracle in this work, declares:
Nothing can keep us
From the family of man
That binds you and me to unity.
We are one to eternity.
Holding Grandfather’s arm,
Grandmother leans to him, whispering:
Do you hear the children of children calling:
We are not refugee;
We are on firmer ground.
Nothing can stop us…