i.  long distance breathing

Usually I would come to Jaki’s porch in Mebane. I would give her a hug. She would invite me in for tea, but her husband, Abdul, would be the one to make it. I would admire one of the many treasures in her living room and get to hear about a trip to Morocco or what our beloved Michelle Lanier, folklorist and founder of the NC African American Heritage Commission, would call an Afro-Carolinian family story from back in the day. 

But right now, nothing is usual. So, I am sitting in my own home with my head pressed to the window as North Carolina’s first Black Poet Laureate tells me over the phone how the dragonfly kissed her all over her body today. 

The day of our phone conversation is exactly 11 years from the day Jaki said goodbye to her daughter, Imani. Determined not to leave this Earth on Abdul and Jaki’s anniversary, she told the angels to wait a little while and passed away at exactly 9:00 a.m. on June 5, 2009. I drink in the afternoon sun as Jaki starts the conversation by telling me how her daughter started visiting her and other family members in the delicate form of a dragonfly. 

First, the day after Imani’s funeral, a lone dragonfly stood stock still on the car antenna for hours. Another time, on the 11th floor of a hotel on a snowy day in Chicago:

I had been in this house for years and never seen a dragonfly, ever. Not in my yard, not on my plants. All of a sudden they were coming. They come in a gang, a pack of dragonflies. And from that point on dragonflies start showing up in our lives. People started sending me flowers to the house. They’d have these little, teeny, tiny dragonflies in them. One day a friend sent me this gorgeous silk-screen dragonfly scarf. And these people didn’t know the story of the dragonfly. I’m telling you, it was eerie, Alexis. People would send me cards in the mail, there’d be a dragonfly.

And you better believe that as Jaki and her family got out of the car for her induction as North Carolina Poet Laureate, there was a whole crowd of dragonflies there to greet them.   

“They were just dancing around the car,” Jaki says, “waiting for us to get out.”

And again today. A daughter returns on the air. Winged and insistent. 

“She shows up all the time. A little while ago, standing out there, this dragonfly literally was all over my body like she was kissing me. Oh my God.”

It is not time yet but by the end of this conversation Jaki will tell me, with detailed wonder and a mother’s love, the story of her daughter’s last breath.

ii.  holding (our) breath

What a time for breathing.  A virus hungry for our lungs. A system kneeling on our necks. The chokehold of police and vigilante violence.  And our poet laureate has found the time, as she says, “between breaths,” during the most intense year of travel of her life, to create the exact archive of breathing we need. The first poem on the album, “This I Know for Sure,” opens:

We are the breath

the skin

the muscles

the heart

the hands

the unmeasurable bones 

whispering across the Atlantic Ocean

Ancestral breath stays with us, woven through the imagery of the entire album.  

In the intimacy of mothering and daughtering, “I am breath that is caught in the fragrance of a mother’s hair” (“The Communion of White Dresses”).  In the rage of responding to police violence, “I sing your name into the wind” (“Oh My Brother”). In the inseparability of the land and the people, “where red clay becomes breathing face” (“The River Speaks of Thirst”).

Jaki explains that poetry is a vessel for preserving and honoring breath: 

Poetry is a container for breath. And I have a container fetish. In my home, you know, there are baskets, bowls, cups, hats, they are all vessels for air. The books on my bedside table, your books are there, those words, they hold air for me. I have the water vessels that my ancestors used to transport water from the creek. Salt-glazed water vessels. To shape those vessels and glaze them and then to use them over and over, those vessels hold my ancestors’ breath. We had them appraised by historians and they go back to the 1800s. They have been on display once at UNC in the 1970s and they wanted to buy them and yes of course they are of historical value, but I’m keeping them with me. I have to keep those containers. Because they hold.

iii.  breathing together

How appropriate then that Jaki would collaborate with neighbors and friends to record her actual breathing, invocations of poems from a forthcoming book (all but one have never been published before).  The collaborators are some of North Carolina’s finest poets and musicians: Shirlette Ammons, CJ Suitt, Jennifer Evans, and Nnenna Freelon.  

When I asked Jaki what she learned about collaboration in this process she said: 

When I collaborate with someone, I offer them the poem. I have already woven the basket, and I trust it in their hands. I am not trying to control or manipulate the outcome. What I learned was that you let go. And you trust the work. And you work with people you trust. I knew it was going to be wonderful, but it was not what I expected. It was not about my expectation. I learned that collaboration is surrender. It can be a beautiful surrender.

On collaborating with world-renowned jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon in particular she said:

In my mind I heard Nnenna Freelon singing on the album, but she was about to go on tour.  I didn’t know if she would have time. She said, you can have one hour, and we made it happen. I was so grateful. She just sang that poem. And when she sang, she really held it. She really lived through the poem. And she rolled with it. And sometimes she got emotional with it. And sometimes she would just turn to me and say, “Girl. I love this line.”

iv.  reclaiming stolen breath

Not despite, but because of its beauty, this is a protest album. It comes out on Juneteenth. The poem “I Wanted to Ask the Trees” addresses the legacy of lynching in North Carolina, which is also part of Jaki’s family history:

I wanted to ask the trees you? You? Is it you who knows the blood of my ancestors? Because my great uncle was hung. My great grandfather and his brother my great uncle were Reconstruction-era sheriffs.  They arrested a white woman for public drunkenness and that night a white mob dragged them out of their homes and strung them up.  My great grandfather survived. The Black people in the community found him, they got to his body in time, they took the rope off his neck. He survived, but his brother died. And we know he survived because he testified against Klan activity. He spoke out on Capitol Hill in the 1880s. And so when I look at these trees—I live out here in the country and there are so many trees. And I want to ask them, what have they witnessed? Who have they held?

The River Speaks of Thirst offers another understanding of place, where life itself can write over the deadly story of racism.  The poem “Letter from the Other Daughter of the Confederacy,” inspired by Jaki’s grandmother’s insightful reclamation of Confederate history as something that could never have been imagined without the physical and symbolic labor of enslaved women, is one place where Jaki refuses the narrative racism offers. 

“They don’t like it when I go to the plantation museums and I touch all the cups and the plates, but it was my ancestors washing those dishes, filling those plates,” she says. “There is a sign on the velvet couch that says do not touch, but I crawl up on it. It was my ancestors brushing the crumbs from that couch and I can feel their breath when I touch the evidence of their work.” 

And for Jaki the beautiful thing, the poetic possibility, is that we can remember our connection to the planet and each other: 

You know the planet, the Earth. I can hear her breathing. It’s so quiet. I keep looking up and the sky is so clear and I hear the occasional helicopter but I haven’t hardly heard an airplane. Where I live is usually part of the flight pattern so we always hear airplanes overhead, but now it’s quiet. The earth is breathing. And it is not at all a coincidence that she had to threaten our breathing, the breathing of humans so that she could finally take a breath. Because of what we have been doing to this Earth. She said you all just sit down. I need a breath.

This album, and indeed everything Jaki Shelton Green does, is a sacred vessel for ancestral, cosmic, planetary breath. We give thanks.  

Jaki Shelton Green’s The River Speaks of Thirst comes out June 19 on Soul City Sounds and is available for preorder now.

Alexis Pauline Gumbs is the author of Dub: Finding Ceremony, M Archive: After the End of the World and Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity. She is also co-editor of Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines and co-founder of the Mobile Homecoming Trust in Durham.

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