A. Van Jordan’s “M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A.”
A. Van Jordan’s “M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A” is based on the life of MacNolia Cox, an African American woman, who as a girl almost won the state spelling bee in 1936. She was thwarted when the (all White) judges used a word that was not from the official spelling bee list. As a child she wanted to be a surgeon, but instead became the house cleaner for a doctor. These deeply stirring, cinematic poems are written from the points of view of her husband, her, and others.
“Say this life and let it be enough, for once.” -Joe Bolton, American Variations
If you say obscenity, o-b-s-c-e-n-i-t-y
It doesn’t sound like a bad word;It sounds like the name of a child
On her mother’s lips; it sounds like my name
When slid from my mother’s tongue.
My pulse would shift into place
As her voice traveled through my veins.
And let my name bless the one who named me.
I’d pronounce my name and people would
Mistake it for a flower. Can you imagine me
Correcting white adults? I said
MAC-nolia…. No, I mean it was 1936–
It wasn’t safe to spell my own name.
If you whispered it, a thought cloud
Grew over your head with the name, a colon
And the definition: a Negro w ho spells
And reads as well as [if not better than] any white.
Say summer rain running over a brown girl’s face,
And you cannot mistake it for tears;
The syllables are as gentle as summer
Rain running over a brown girl’s face.
Even at 13, I knew right from wrong:
Adam bit the apple and we all could see.
Say truth and let it be true, for once.
Watch the mouth take a bite;
Let the juice run over the lips;
Let the tongue know the taste.
If I had one breath of advice to give
To myself at 13, some language
That would have helped me understand
The grammar of my life, I would have said
What I still know: Girl, savor what you learn
And spit it back as best you know how.