Exploring the Imagistic Turn…

…in Jackie Earley’s ’1,968 Winters’

At first glance “1,968 Winters” appears to be purely a humorous poem. At least, that is what I thought as a 5th grader, when I heard it performed by Yolanda Walker, the coolest black girl that had ever lived. She stood on stage dressed in all black clothes and sporting an Angela Davis ‘fro at Aviano High School, during a Black History Month Program in 1973. She opened her mouth and rocked my elementary school world.

1, 968 Winters

Got up this morning
feeling good & black
Thinking black thoughts
Did black things
Played all my black records
And minded my own black bidness

Put on my best black clothes
Walked out my black door
Lawd have mercy
White Snow!

When the poem ended, I laughed along with the rest of my classmates, but inside I wasn’t laughing – inside me there was stillness. It was as if Jackie Earley via Yolanda Walker was speaking directly to me. Those eleven lines reshaped my psyche, I was having a public – private moment –– “1,968 Winters” had started the magic of poetry spinning.

In hindsight, I realized that it was my initiation poem, a term coined by Edward Hirsch in How to Read a Poem. He identifies this type of poem as the door opener to poetry.   His initiation poem was “No Coward Soul is Mine” by Emily Bronte.  He found the poem as a child and muses, “I never closed that worn anthology again, because it opened an unembarrassed space in me.” Earley’s poem not only claimed me, but also planted a seed in my young self – one that burrowed deep — making me more curious about the poem and also fostering a growth that would eventually bloom into my full-fledge love of poetry.

Hearing “1,968 Winters” made me experience joy that up to that moment that had only been relegated to recess. The poem made me giddy, as if my prison ball team had pummeled our opponents on the playground. The poem caused my blood to course with adrenaline.

Synchronistically twenty years later, when I went on the road full-time performing poetry with a professional touring company called Poetry Alive! Jackie Earley’s poem surfaced again.  It was the first poem that I turned to in my Poetry Alive! Handbook.  It was as if the poem was following me waiting until I caught up to it.

Choosing to perform it was a no brainer — the mixture of colloquial diction was a perfect match enabling me to embody the poem effortlessly and seamlessly.  Students and teachers all across the country responded to the poem as we did in 1973 – with raucous laughter.  However, I wondered if any students got the deeper meaning like I did. Performing “1,968 Winters” for the last two decades across the country to school age children allowed it to kinesthetically unfold and speak to me on multiple levels.

The turn in the poem is dynamic, because of the title and the ten preceding lines.  The title does tremendous work as it places the reader at the end of a decade, the late 60’s full of racial and political upheaval – a time in history where we were fighting for civil rights – a right to be treated equally and humanely.  King was assassinated during this struggle. It was a sobering time. In the title the decade is jutted next to the word “Winters,” a seasonal marker that sets the mood and tone of this era.

The first line of the poem works against the title in a disarming way, because of the conversational diction:  “Got up this morning / feeling good & black.”  As a reader, I felt included in this affirmation. The definitive use of black strikes the funny bone, as the speaker conveys she is feeling black alluding that there might be days that she might feel less black, but today is not that day. After the first line, repetition drives the poem with a funky straightforward rhythm.  We are indeed on the soul train, yet Earley skillfully handles displaying the interior world of the speaker. The word “black” is mentioned seven times. The colloquial speech gives moments of breath coupled with a keen sense of playfulness. We follow the speaker on one day in her black life.  She dons everything in her world that is familiar:  thinking, belongings, home, music and world. It is all done in a 1960’s hip way.  When the litany ends we get another colloquial line:  “Lawd have mercy,” which can be interpreted as both a plea and a prayer.  It is a pretty important line, because this line harkens back to the field prayer of my ancestors – a plea for relief – for freedom.

The turn in the poem begins on the 10th line, a one-word line: “And”.  Such an unassuming conjunction, but the world is held in this line.  You can feel the speaker’s inhalation of breath, as it is being siphoned before the realization delivered in the last line — a literal and metaphorical cold slap.  This line often induces laughter.  Yes, the poem is funny.  There is something about hearing black black black black black black black black white — that is hilarious, but as we sit with this repetition soon we come to the realization that Earley has led us to a place where nothing about the poem is really funny.  The humor in this poem is utilized as a door opener.  It welcomes and disarms us.

The last line does not shut the poem down, but rather opens it up to the speaker’s frigid circumstance, which reverberates. The last line is delivered in two monosyllabic words“White Snow!” — Delivered with an exclamation point.  The turn is complete.   The speaker put on her“best black clothes” — her physical and emotional shields of protection, while minding her own “black bidness” and opens her “black door” and faces a world that she is not prepared to enter.  Her psychological and physical insulation is not enough for the cold slap of the white world.   Earley demonstrates the alienation that the speaker feels being out of the warm safety of her home. The turn in this poem spoke to me as a youth in a way nothing or no one had up to this point.

Born in 1963, I had more possibilities than my parent’s sharecropping South Carolina past.   My siblings and I were afforded opportunities through my father’s military trek.  We had left their reality – the blatant racism of the Jim Crow south. However, crisscrossing the United States during the early stages of integration, we still faced challenges.  The country was legally forced to accept blacks educationally and professionally, however, compassion and empathy could not be legislated.  Walking into classrooms as an only black was a sign of the times—civil rights advancement, but it also came along with burdens. We integrated almost every elementary classroom we attended.

We were not prepared to enter a different world than our parent’s segregated world.  In our home and community we grew up accepted and loved.  This newly integrated society offered positives, but along with the advantages came obstacles and challenges.  There were times when we were mocked as aberrations and curiosities due to our differences: culture, language and ways.  My sister, Velinda, the oldest of us, was the first one to integrate the elementary school in Sumter, South Carolina in 1963.  She remembers as a first grader being chased home by white boys wielding sticks and calling her racial epithets.

This riding up against cultural edges is how we grew up.  It created many wounds.  I was indeed relieved in my adulthood to find some explanation of what we endured in Joy LeGruy Leary’s book, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.  No wonder, when I heard Yolanda Walker read the poem affirming blackness, the poem just leapt into my heart.  My backstory had predisposed for this particular poem. I was ready to receive the magic it had to offer. Before Leary’s lessons, Earley’s poem acted as a forerunner, my first guide. Unbeknownst to me “1,968 Winters” became not only my initiation poem, but also a signpost, that guided me as a poet and a human for the last thirty-eight years.

Though I believe the turn begins on line 10 and completes on the final line, I would suggest looking at the whole poem as a turn – at least culturally, because it presents the vantage point that W.E.B. Dubois’ labeled as double consciousness of African Americans.  This poem displays this split by contrasting the interior life of the speaker to the exterior life that she faces when she opens her door.  I am fed by the imagistic turn that resonates on a macrocosmic and microcosmic level that speaks to both my personal and collective lineage.

One might think after hearing the poem once, the turn would lose its impact, because the metaphoric cat is out the bag, but Earley’s poem is so well crafted, when I read it, hear it or perform it, a key turns within me every single time opening that “unembarrassed space” giving me permission to name and to confront challenges of being black black black in a white world.