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The Voice of the Black Community

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Southern experiences inspire collection of poems
Woman's travels across the Mason-Dixon Line suggest New South is much like the old
 
Published Thursday, April 18, 2013
by Michaela L. Duckett

There are some who believe we live in a post-racial society. Artress Bethany White is not one of them.

clientuploads/v38n13photos/Bethany White - Photo by Anastasia White.jpg
PHOTO/ANASTASIA WHITE
Artress Bethany White will be at Park Road Books in Charlotte on April 27 to discuss her new collection of poems and her experiences traveling across the Mason-Dixon Line.

White recently published “Fast Fat Girls in Pink Hot Pants,” a collection of poems inspired by her journeys back and forth across the Mason-Dixon Line.

She will be in Charlotte at Park Road Books on April 27 to host a candid discussion about her book and the relevance of race, economics and family traditions in the 21st century.

Born in Boston, White was raised mostly in the Northeast. So much of what she knew about ol’ Dixie came from summer visits with extended family and the experiences of her father, who grew up in Polk County, a rural community in Florida.

“I had heard my father tell stories about the South of his childhood,” White recalls. “It was not a glamorous place. He grew up during segregation, and there were little opportunities for black men... It was a lot of negativity about the South.”

White’s father was one of many African-Americans who migrated North in hopes of finding greater opportunities. Life in the North provided White’s family with better economic prospects but encounters with racism were still common.

“When I was in high school, I was called ‘nigger’ everyday,” she said. “There were very few black people in my town. There was a moment when we were the only black family.”

While earning a master’s degree in creative writing at New York University, White found herself immersed in a cultural melting pot – surrounded by immigrants from Africa, Haiti and various places in the Caribbean.

She became familiar with various schools of thought, including Black Radicalism and Pan Africanism.

“They brought a cultural perspective with them so my world view became very diversified while I was in New York,” she said. “It was all about the Black Panthers, Angela Davis and the tradition of spoken word poetry and the black arts movement.”

White began devouring the works of black poets and scholars because she felt she had been deprived of their writing for so much of her schooling.

“I felt like I had to catch up,” she said. “I’ve been catching up for years.”

New South, old traditions

She also wrote her own poetry, and when she journeyed south to pursue her Ph.D. in English at the University of Kentucky, she used her poetry to express the wide range of emotions she felt.

It was around 1999, a time when many African Americans were making a “reverse migration” back from the North. White arrived in Lexington, Ky., anticipating something much different from the South she knew as a child.

“I had been told around that time that we were experiencing a New South and that things were not the way they used to be,” she said. “I had very high expectations... but what I found was still a pretty segregated South.”

White was shocked to find so many Confederate flags flying – something she did not associate with being a symbol of the New South. She was also surprised by the prevalent use of the n-word.

“I came to realize that the South is very complex,” she said. “On a daily basis you are faced with the present and the past. History is constantly present.”

Black snakeskin boots

While adjusting to her new life back in the South, White was hit with a burst of inspiration and said poems began coming to her “fast and furiously.” Soon, a unifying theme began to emerge.

“What I started to notice was that I was really chronicling my reverse migration experience,” she said.

Some of the poems were inspired by early childhood memories, and others came from everyday experiences. The poem “Black Snake Skin Boots” was inspired when White went to have a pair of boots re-heeled. The nearest shoe repair shop she could find was in a town called White, Ga.

“That was really the name of the town,” she said. “I had a sense of apprehension. And sure enough when I walked in there, it was a Confederate flag tacked on the wall behind the cash register.”

The clerk, who she describes as a “man with naked lust in his eyes” greeted her with a “howdy gal” that made her skin crawl. In the poem she sums it up this way: “There is a certain smile that graces the face of white me when they see an attractive black woman that recalls images of white uniforms slamming pots and wandering hands over the behinds of resistant black maids.”

She said the moment made her feel isolated and alone.

“It was just little ol’ black me,” she said. “In the South, history can come and knock you in between the eyes when you don’t expect it.”

While many of the poems in “Fast Fat Girls in Pink Hot Pants” depict White’s encounters with racism as she sojourned across the Mason-Dixon, the book also touches on traditions, family life and economics.

The book is titled after one of White’s poems which tells the story of a time in her childhood when she was nearly sexually assaulted by a female bully while spending a summer in Florida.

“That experience had been somewhat traumatic,” she said. “But when I wrote that poem I was liberated from it. It fit because it took place in the South and it had to deal with adults being blind to what children have to deal with. Because it was so cathartic to me, I figured this feels so good, I’m just going to make it the title of the book.”

White resides in Jefferson City, Tenn., where she is an associate professor of English at Carson-Newman College. Her works have been published in a number of anthologies, academic books and literary journals, but “Fast Fat Girls” is her first book.

She said response to the book has been phenomenal and full of surprises.

“I’ve read to largely white audiences, largely black as well as mixed audiences,” she said. “When I’ve read it to white audiences they’ve actually been so encouraging. They’ve said, ‘I’m so glad that you didn’t’ censor what you are saying in this book because it is so powerful, and I finally feel that I can say a lot of things that are on my mind.’ That surprised me. You just never know.”

White, who has one biological child and three stepchildren, is working on her second collection of poems about parenting.

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