Langston Hughes on Evictions

Police enforce a 1933 Manhattan eviction


As I watch Donald Trump trying to scare “suburban housewives” (his twitter phrase) with racist visions of invading black hoards and plummeting property values, I see him returning to his realtor and slumlord roots, using the tried-and-true tactics that made his father a rich man. Fred Trump was held accountable by the Justice Department for his his racist housing practices and discriminatory rental policies, however, whereas Attorney General William Barr fully endorses Trump’s program. The presence of paramilitary troops is meant to convince Whites that there is a corresponding Black threat.

Meanwhile, Covid deaths continue to rise and the economy to crater under Trump’s management. Unless the Republican Senate stops dawdling, as many as 23 million renters may face eviction by the end of September (this according to the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project).

Not all landlords are like the Trumps, of course—many themselves face economic ruin—but this seems a good time to share Langston Hughes’s “Ballad to a Landlord.” When a black homeowner pushes against his negligent landlord, he quickly learns who has access to institutions of power, including the police, the press, and the judicial system.

The poem is dated in that those who feel threatened by men of color no longer shout out, “Police! Police! Come and get this man.” Instead, they use their cellphones.

Ballad of a Landlord

Landlord, landlord,
My roof has sprung a leak.
Don't you 'member I told you about it
Way last week?

Landlord, landlord,
These steps is broken down.
When you come up yourself
It's a wonder you don't fall down.

Ten Bucks you say I owe you?
Ten Bucks you say is due?
Well, that's Ten Bucks more'n I'll pay you
Till you fix this house up new.

What? You gonna get eviction orders?
You gonna cut off my heat?
You gonna take my furniture and
Throw it in the street?

Um-huh! You talking high and mighty.
Talk on-till you get through.
You ain't gonna be able to say a word
If I land my fist on you.

Police! Police!
Come and get this man!
He's trying to ruin the government
And overturn the land!

Copper's whistle!
Patrol bell!
Precinct Station.
Iron cell.
Headlines in press:


Other timely Hughes poems:

Here’s one that gets straight to the emotional core of current anxieties. It’s short and sweet and makes playful use of parentheses. Hughes is a master at understatement when it comes to life and death issues, avoiding melodrama with a dash of stoic irony:

Little Lyric (of Great Importance)

I wish the rent
Was Heaven sent

His use of the cosmopolitan “ennui,” meanwhile, contrasts with–and thereby accentuates–the numbing actuality of grinding poverty:


It's such a
Being always
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I Have Seen the Sun Break Through

Turner, Abergavenny Bridge Monmountshire

Spiritual Sunday

I’ve written a couple of times about Jesus’s “pearl of great price,” found in today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 13:44-46). It provides the climactic image for a Hilda Doolittle poem and a pivotal allusion for a fine William Cowper meditation upon truth. (See the links at the end of today’s post for the essays.) Today I turn to an R. S. Thomas poem, which compares it to the sun breaking through clouds.

Jesus’s metaphors for the process of spiritual exploration include a field containing buried treasure as well as the pearl:

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.

Thomas, a Welsh Anglican priest with a passion for nature, continues Jesus’s search for metaphors:

The Bright Field

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

Comparing the sunlight to the pearl and the field is a nice touch, and Williams brings in another light image with Moses’s burning bush. The epiphanic moment when God spoke directly to Moses adds a directive to Jesus’s image: God, after all, directed his servant to lead his people out of bondage to the promised land, while Williams hears the call to focus on eternity.

It doesn’t matter how transitory the moment seems. Before the moment, we are hurrying toward some receding future ir longing for some imagined past. What appears as a turning aside comes to clarify our purpose in life.

Previous posts on the pearl of great price
–The Pearl of Great Price Within
–The Only Lasting Treasure, Truth

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Trump’s Troops Have No Stinkin’ Badges

Unidentified federal forces in Portland


Yesterday Lafayette Square, today Portland, tomorrow maybe Chicago. Donald Trump is making sure that his secret and unmarked federal troops are stirring things up in what is the 2020 version of sending troops to the southern border (2018) to intercept non-existent migrant caravans. (All talk of the caravans disappeared immediately after the election.) These troops remind me of the outlaws in B. Traven’s 1927 novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

While few people know the novel, many know the line delivered by Gold Hat, the head of a gang posing as mounted police. Desiring the weapons of three gold prospectors, he accuses them of hunting without a license and possessing unregistered firearms. This result in the following interchange, which concludes with X-rated profanity that doesn’t appear in the film:

“All right,” Curtin shouted back. “If you are the police, where are your badges? Let’s see them.”

“Badges, to god-damned hell with badges! We have no badges. In fact, we don’t need badges. I don’t have to show you any stinking badges, you god-damned carbron and chinga tu madre!

In the film, the Bogart character Dobbs is involved in the interchange:

Dobbs: “If you’re the police, where are your badges?”
Gold Hat: “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!”

Gold Hat ultimately kills Dobbs and then himself is tracked down by actual police and executed.

Our own unmarked police are no more willing to reveal their true identities as they teargas and club non-violent protesters and sweep up random people from the streets. We now know that at least some of them are U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement agents, bringing with them their questionable and often violent behavior from the Mexican border into the heart of America’s cities. According to former solicitor general Neal Katyal (on Lawrence O’Donnell’s MSNBC program), they have no more authority than the novel’s outlaws to exert police power, which is reserved for the states. Conservative Chief Justice William Renquist reasserted this principle in a 2000 ruling.

The disregard for local authority demonstrated by the Acting Head of Homeland Security–himself a man not confirmed by the Senate—is an egregious abuse of power. So is the rationale for federal intervention, which is as flimsy as that offered up by the outlaws. Furthermore, the rationale keeps changing: at first the federal troops were there to guard federal buildings (against graffiti?!), then to fight urban crime. Unless various state attorney generals are successful in stopping the incursion of these troops altogether, the rationale will probably change a few more times.

If memory serves me, in the final scene of the film we see Gold Hat’s hat blowing through the empty and dusty street following the sound of the firing squad’s gunshots, a sign that the legitimate authorities have finally caught up with him. Will we see Trump’s troops stripped of their warrior uniforms and held accountable for the shootings, seizures, and beatings they have administered? Will the rule of law reassert itself in America?

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Circle of Reason Villain Resembles Trump


I’m currently on an Amitav Ghosh kick, having completed the Ibis Trilogy (about the British opium trade in 19th century China) and The Calcutta Chromosome (about the discovery of malaria transmission). The Circle of Reason, his first novel, features a villain who reminds me a lot of Donald Trump, especially in the way our president is using a private police force to impose his will on Portland, Oregon.

To be sure, one doesn’t have to leave India to encounter Trump figures since the country currently has its own wannabe autocrat as prime minister. But Trump is who I know and is therefore my focus here.

Bhudeb-Roy is a cagy businessman who sets up a school and hires Balaram, one of the novel’s protagonists, as a teacher. Bhudeb-Roy cares less about education than about the money and fame that running a school provides him. For instance, he has portraits of himself scattered throughout the classrooms, gives all the school’s academic prize money to his five sons, and skims off profits for himself while underpaying Balaram. That, however, is just a start.

When a plane from the India-Pakistan war crashes into the school, he immediately hires 20 young men to ensure there will be no scavenging and then proceeds to sell all the plane’s scrap metal to the villagers. He does very well for himself, leading to a scene resembling those that Mary Trump tells about the Trump family:

In the evening after every little scrap had been sold he plodded back to his house, happily rubbing the folds of flesh on the back of his neck. He called his sons into a room and passed around wads of notes. He smiled as he watched them sensuously running their fingers over the rustling paper. That right, he said, his tiny eyes bulging. You can’t ever know what money means unless you feel it.

That’s not the end of the matter, however. First, he uses the insurance money to arm his twenty young men. Then, when the army shows up, he informs them who has each piece of metal. All is reclaimed and, when a spokesman for the villagers asks for their money back, he is threatened with the full force of the law. In this harangue we first encounter what will become Bhudeb-Roy’s obsession with straight lines:

Be grateful, he roared, that you’re not in gaol for being found in possession of government property. Do you know who you owe it to? Me. Me. Me. Should I charge you lawyer’s fees? And you’ll end up even poorer. If you know what’s good for you, you and all your bad-element friends will start working on straight lines instead of hanging around the banyan tree, doing nothing but rearing your heads and thinking anti-social thoughts.

Bolai-da was led out in a hurry by one of the young men. The other young men began to rattle their sticks and shine their knuckledusters, and the whole delegation was soon hurrying down the lane jaldi-toot-sweet.

Nobody ever talked again. After that, people said, not a bird chirruped in Lalpukur but with Bhudeb Roy’s permission, and under the supervision of his twenty young men.

In other words, only the privileged deserve good things. Everyone else is a a moocher and a loafer.

With his growing prominence, Bhudeb-Roy—like Trump—begins to consider a political career, although giving up the school will have one drawback:

After all, he had devoted a large part of his life to the school; it was a testament to a youth he was still loath to part with. There was some vanity in it, too: he liked to walk down those corridors looking at pictures of himself and he liked to hear visitors’ compliments.

However, as he informs the villagers in a tearful farewell upon the school’s closing (he’s the only one crying), they won’t lose out on those pictures altogether. In this speech we also get the first glimpse into his law and order platform:

Don’t worry, he wept, waving a consoling hand at the garlanded pictures of himself which had been arrayed behind him on the podium. These aren’t going away. They’re going to be closer to you than ever. They’ll be right among you, everywhere, in the banyan tree, in your houses, in your shops. You’ll never be far from me.

The tears flowed faster as he read accusations into the crowd’s silent, fixed gaze. I couldn’t help it, he cried. It had to come to an end. It was a good school in its time, but that time is past. A new time beckons. The time to teach is over. The time has come to serve the people.

The time has come, he said, his tears drying on his cheeks, for straight lines. The trouble with this village is that there aren’t enough straight lines. Look at Europe, look at America, look at Tokyo: straight lines, that’s the secret. Everything is in straight lines. The roads are straight, the houses are straight, the cars are straight (except for the wheels). They even walk straight. That’s what we need: straight lines. There’s a time and an age for everything, and this is the age of the straight line.

I haven’t yet finished the novel so I don’t know whether Bhudeb-Roy gets away with all his machinations, which include inventing a conspiracy theory to crush his former colleague. Like Trump’s resentment against Obama, Bhudeb-Roy’s detestation of Balaram has grown so intense that he persuades the police that he’s a terrorist out to destroy the country. So far in the novel, he has escaped all accountability.

The villagers, because they are poor and powerless, can be forgiven for not opposing Bhudeb-Roy’s excesses. Trump’s Congressional enablers, occupying one of the three branches of government, have no such excuse.

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The Tomato Sheds Its Own Light


We have started to harvest a few tomatoes from our small rooftop garden, which gives me an excuse for sharing Pablo Neruda’s luscious “Ode to Tomatoes.” (Thanks to my mother for alerting me to the poem.) Tomatoes originated in Neruda’s part of the world, the Andean culture that also gave us corn and potatoes. When a street is filled with tomatoes, Neruda writes, it’s as though the summer light is cut in half, with its redness running down the byways. The tomato, he observes, sheds its own light.

The tomato’s “fiery color” brings summer even to December tables, appearing a “recurrent and fertile star” that

its convolutions,
its canals,
its remarkable amplitude
and abundance…

Containing “no pit,/no husk,/ no leaves or thorns,” the tomato, Neruda informs us, offers us

its gift
of fiery color
and cool completeness.

When paired with the onion, another vegetable that has received a Neruda ode, the tomato is like the featured celebrity at a sacred union. To be sure, we must first sink a knife into its “living flesh,” but what we get in return is “the wedding of the day.”

Among other things, poetry adds to our gustatory experience.

Ode to Tomatoes

The street
filled with tomatoes,
light is
its juice
through the streets.
In December,
the tomato
the kitchen,
it enters at lunchtime,
its ease
on countertops,
among glasses,
butter dishes,
blue saltcellars.
It sheds
its own light,
benign majesty.
Unfortunately, we must
murder it:
the knife
into living flesh,
a cool
populates the salads
of Chile,
happily, it is wed
to the clear onion,
and to celebrate the union
child of the olive,
onto its halved hemispheres,
its fragrance,
salt, its magnetism;
it is the wedding
of the day,
its flag,
bubble vigorously,
the aroma
of the roast
at the door,
it's time!
come on!
and, on
the table, at the midpoint
of summer,
the tomato,
star of earth, recurrent
and fertile
its convolutions,
its canals,
its remarkable amplitude
and abundance,
no pit,
no husk,
no leaves or thorns,
the tomato offers
its gift
of fiery color
and cool completeness.
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Living Where Peace Comes Dropping Slow

Lake Eva, Sewanee, Tennessee


We’ve put up a birdfeeder outside our screened-in back porch and are now being visited by a non-stop stream of goldfinches, titmice, and chickadees. One additional benefit is that, for the first time in my life, I fully appreciate a Yeats image that has always eluded me.

It makes sense that “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” would match up with our experience because, in many ways, we are living the life that the poet dreams of. My mother lives in a house situated on 18 acres of woodland overlooking a lake that itself is a few hundred feet from a Southern Appalachian bluff. To be sure, the cabin close by the house where Julia and I live isn’t made of clay and wattles—cedar planks and metal roofing rather—and we don’t have any beehives. Nor have I heard many crickets.

But we do have katydids, which are drowning out pretty much every other night noise these days. (Before their arrival, we could hear owls, coyotes, and frogs.) Julia has also planted beans on the roof terrace of my mother’s house, where they escape our sizable deer population. Through the trees, before the katydids kick in, we can hear the “lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore.” Peace does indeed come dropping slow.

The line that has new meaning features linnet’s wings. When I first read “Lake Isle of Innisfree,” I didn’t know that a linnet was a small finch. Nor could I figure out how linnet wings would fill up an evening.

I know now. At certain times of the day, we witness a constant fluttering, hearing as well as seeing the birds that gather at the feeder. It’s as though the trees are alive. The titmice and chickadees are especially active, flitting in to grab a sunflower seed and then flitting off. I can hear tiny explosions of wing movements as they land and depart. “Ah! bright wings,” I murmur, quoting the spondee that concludes Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur.”

Peace, according to Yeats, comes from paying attention to small moments of beauty. When we do so, they will come to us even when we stand on noisy roadways and pavements grey.

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
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On John Lewis’s Love of “Invictus”

John Lewis attacked in Selma in 1965


Professor David Greenberg yesterday reported in the Washington Post that the late John Lewis’s favorite poem was William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus,” a lyric about which I have mixed feelings. As I note in a previous essay, it’s a poem that has been embraced by both Nelson Mandela (good) and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh (bad!).  Lewis’s love for the poem is getting me to rethink it, however.

As a child, Lewis would apparently go around the house reciting “Invictus.” Given that one day he would literally be bludgeoned, once by a coca cola crate and another time by a police baton that fractured his skull—and that he refused to violently resist the blows—the second stanza takes on new resonance:

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

In my blog post, I questioned Henley’s understanding of soul.  Declaring himself to be “master of my fate” and “captain of my soul” sounded too much like a power fantasy that a white terrorist like McVeigh would indulge in. Lewis, however, read mastery in a very different way.

He probably picked up on the poem’s religious references. The black night “that covers me” sounds like St. John of the Cross’s “dark night of the soul”; the scroll of sins points to God’s final judgment (Matthew 25:31-46); and “it matters not how strait the gate” directly quotes Jesus (Matthew 7:13-14):

Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat. Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

In other words, mastery for Lewis is personal discipline and staying true to his faith. His soul is unconquerable because it is from God.

To be sure, Henley doesn’t mention God in his poem (“whatever gods there be” doesn’t count), and as the poet sees it, this world is nothing more than a “place of wrath and tears” followed by “the Horror of the shade.” Henley’s stance is one of existentialist bravado (a la Hemingway or Dashiell Hammett), a man brandishing a personal code of honor in the face of an absurd universe. For Lewis, on the other hand, following Jesus’s call to love can transform this vale of tears into a fertile garden. As Psalm 84:6 puts it, “Who passing through the valley of Baca make it a well; the rain also filleth the pool.” The end point for Lewis was not personal triumph but a fulfillment of divine love and forgiveness.

Greenberg sees the poem capturing Lewis’s “indomitable spirit,” and that was certainly one dimension of the man. But everyone who knew Lewis also recalls his extraordinary humility, and “Invictus” is not a humble poem. Lewis’s power came from the way he thanked God, not in a perfunctory manner, but with his whole heart.

Nevertheless, we can imagine Lewis using “Invictus” to stiffen his spine when he found himself in the “fell clutch of circumstance.” Poetry provides us with such power.


It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

Out of the night that covers me 
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance,
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbow’d.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
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Scraping One’s Knees on Jacob’s Ladder

William Blake, Jacob’s Ladder

Spiritual Sunday

Today’s post, reprinted from six years ago, concerns Denise Levertov’s reflection on Jacob’s dream about a stairway to heaven. In his theory of “the sacred and the profane,” anthropologist Marcel Eliade talks about those sacred spaces in which the boundary between the earthly and the spiritual is particularly porous. Jacob’s Bethel is one such place.

Since writing the original post, I have come across another powerful poetic reference to Jacob’s ladder. In the series of poems that Lucille Clifton wrote about 9-11, she sees the New York firemen who sacrificed their lives during the Twin Tower attacks as achieving their own kind of transcendence. Clifton is undoubtedly aware that “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder” was an early slave spiritual, a dream of escaping harsh circumstances:

Thursday, 9/13-01

the firemen
like jacob’s ladder
into the mouth of

Reprinted from July 20, 2014

Today’s Old Testament reading in our church is about Jacob’s ladder, the dream vision that Jacob receives from God about his future. Denise Levertov uses the story to describe how poetry is composed.

First, here’s the account in the Book of Genesis (28:10-19a):

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the LORD stood beside him and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place– and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel.

In Levertov’s 1961 poem, the stairway is the transcendent poem. It must be constructed out of the tool we have, which is imperfect language. Rather than directly expressing radiant and evanescent angels, the poet must deal with sharp angles. The doubting night gray of the sky testifies to the challenge he or she faces.

It is a theme in much of Levertov’s poetry, however, that struggling in the face of doubt is how we experience the divine. Men may not be angels and the rocks we use for building may scrape our feet.  Nevertheless, just as Jacob, his head pillowed on a rock, sees a stairway to heaven, so does our rock have “a glowing tone of softness.” The poet feels the light brush of angel wings and the poem ascends:

The Jacob’s Ladder

By Denise Levertov

The stairway is not
a thing of gleaming strands
a radiant evanescence
for angels’ feet that only glance in their tread, and
need not touch the stone.

It is of stone.
A rosy stone that takes
a glowing tone of softness
only because behind it the sky is a doubtful,
a doubting night gray.

A stairway of sharp
angles, solidly built.
One sees that the angels must spring
down from one step to the next, giving a little
lift of the wings:

and a man climbing
must scrape his knees, and bring
the grip of his hands into play. The cut stone
consoles his groping feet. Wings brush past him.
The poem ascends.

I pick up at least two other poems that Levertov may be alluding to. In “The Altar,” George Herbert talks about the paradox of a hard stone altar being a means of opening a hard heart to God. (See my post on “The Altar” here.)

A HEART alone
Is such a stone,
As nothing but
Thy pow’r doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame
To praise thy name.

The other is Yeats’ “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” which has an image of a ladder. The poet laments the end of his youthful romanticism, which once gave him marvelous poetic images (his circus animals). Now, however, he feels trapped in his own grimy and mundane reality.

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. 

The miracle is that, out of this unpromising material, Yeats constructs the ladder that is his poem. For those of you wrestling with your doubts about whether transcendence exists, you can look to the miraculous existence of poetry and be reassured.

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An Early Advocate of Native Lives Matter

Christian G. Priber, 1697-1744


A significant and unexpected 5-4 Supreme Court ruling sided with Native Americans earlier this month, giving me an opportunity to share one of my father’s prose poems about Indian rights. As the Smithsonian points out, as a result of McGirt v Oklahoma,

much of the eastern half of Oklahoma [now] falls within Native American territory. The decision—which places criminal cases involving Native Americans on the Muscogee (Creek) Nation reservation under federal, rather than state, jurisdiction—is “one of the most consequential” legal wins for tribal rights in decades, report Jack Healy and Adam Liptak for the New York Times.

The case hinged on a key question: Did the reservation, established by U.S. treaties during the 1830s, continue to exist after Oklahoma officially became a state in 1907?…

“This is a historic day,” Principal [Creek Nation] Chief David Hill tells the Times. “This is amazing. It’s never too late to make things right.”

Writing for the majority, Neil Gorsuch invoked

the country’s long history of mistreating Native Americans. “On the far end of the Trail of Tears was a promise,” he wrote. “Forced to leave their ancestral lands in Georgia and Alabama, the Creek Nation received assurances that their new lands in the West would be secure forever. … Today we are asked whether the land these treaties promised remains an Indian reservation for purposes of fed­eral criminal law. Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word.”

Apparently McGirt v Oklahoma will have little effect on non-Indians living on the land. As Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, acting under secretary for museum and culture, and a citizen of the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma explains,

The Court did not give eastern Oklahoma back to the Tribes. Nobody will lose their land or their home. The decision simply means that Indians in that part of the state are subject only to the criminal jurisdiction of the Tribes and the United States, as is true on Indian reservations in many other states.

Nevertheless, he believes that the court’s decision “is a ‘welcome’ one because it upholds the principle that Native American treaties should be honored unless Congress explicitly revokes them.”

Scott Bates’s poem focuses on the figure Christian G. Priber, a man who, understanding European designs on Native American land, tried to get various eastern tribes to unify in opposition. He failed, of course, but I was heartened to see Gorsuch mention the long history of broken treaties. On a personal note, the central Tennessee route of the Trail of Tears, noted by Gorsuch in his ruling, runs less than a mile from where I live.

Bates’s poem appears in The ABC of Radical Ecology (1982). Priber’s resistance to oppression is very much in the spirit of the multi-racial coalition that has sprung up out of Black Lives Matter. It may smack a little too much of white savior complex—I would like to see more about the Indian players in the drama—but Priber was still a remarkable man worth celebrating.

P Is for Priber’s Paradise

P is for Priber
one Christian G.
and his Kingdom of Paradise
in Tennessee

listen to the story
of one man’s dream
to save America
from the white man’s scheme

from the English and the French
and their whiskey and their bribes
and their stealing of the country
from the Indian tribes…

About 250 years ago
in an area of East Tennessee not very far from Knoxville
near where Lenoir City—which means the Black City—stands today
in the Cherokee capital of Great Tellico
Colonel Joseph Fox
Special Emissary from the English Governor at Charles Town on the Atlantic seaboard
had just marched in with his men

Chief Moytoy and the other assembled notables of the Cherokee Nation
had gathered to hear him

Colonel Fox announced
in peremptory tones
that under the authority invested in him by the Crown of the Great King across the Broad Water
he had come to arrest
that dangerous and subversive agent
one “Priber, a Foreigner”
who was to be handed over to him immediately
so that he could be taken back to Charles Town under armed guard
and tried for sedition

The Native Americans stood passively arms crossed
they made no sign

At which point
the dangerous and subversive individual in question
Christian G. Priber scholar linguist friend and advisor of the Cherokee
stepped forward

He was a small plump not very handsome man
with his hair trimm’d in the Cherokee manner and
dressed in the garb of a warrior “with a deerskin jacket, a flap before and behind his privities, and deerskin pumps or morgissons, laced in the Indian manner on his feet”
who politely informed Colonel Fox in good English (although he had been born and brought up in Germany)
that in his official capacity as Prime Minister and Secretary of State of the United Indian Confederation called “The Kingdom of Paradise”
speaking in behalf of his superior, Emperor Moytoy, standing by his side, and the members of his Council here present
it was his duty to inform the Governor’s Emissary
that the English settlers as well as the French invaders
were trespassers on Indian lands
and that the sooner that he his Governor and all the English removed
themselves from the continent the better
since America belonged to the Indians
and the Indians intended to keep it
and he turned to the glowering Cherokee warriors on either side of the English party
and told them quietly and fluently in their dialect that they were
not to remove the scalps of the visiting delegation (as they were doubtless itching to do)
but they were to conduct them safely out of Great Tellico and start them on their journey 500 miles back to the usurped English settlement by the sea

which they did

removing the furious Colonel Fox and his uneasy soldiers from their midst
with a message to the English Governor he would never forget and alas later avenge
leaving the little foreign menace
to turn back to more pressing and certainly more interesting matters

In particular he was perfecting a Constitution for the Indian Commonwealth the Kingdom of Paradise
and spelling out some of the major clauses to wit
This in a society of liberty egality and legality
Each should work according to his talents for the good of all, as he could
That there would be no superiority
That his own condition would be no different from that of any of the others
That all goods would be held in common
That the women would live with the same freedom as the men
That there would be no marriage contracts and parties concerned would be free to change relationships at will
That the children should belong to the state and be always provided for
That all persons “of all Colours and Complexions should be admitted freely into their society”
That there should be general religious freedom
That the only individual property would be books ink pens and paper
And that “the natural rights of mankind” rather than “tyranny, usurpation and oppression” were the Law of Nature and the basic precepts of the American Kingdom of Paradise

Well you know or can imagine what happened
After six years of working to organize the Southeastern Indian nations into a peaceful confederation
After having encouraged the Cherokee’s already established cooperative communal society in which all work was done in common and in which marriage depended upon the will of the married
After having built up a good society on good will booklearning and energy and a remarkable talent for languages
After having been driven out of his native Germany for his progressive ideas
After having arrived in Charles town by way of London with a trunkful of books and a great proficiency in “Dutch Latin English and French”
After having sold his other goods and disappeared into the Wilderness and adopted the ways of the Cherokees
Learned their dialects worn their clothing painted with their paints danced their dances and lived with the daughter of a noted warrior
(all the time carefully maintaining his small Pribery Library and his supply of precious paper and ink)

After having taught his new friends some of the rapacious ways of the white man including the intricacies of weights and measures so that they could keep from being swindled by the traders
After having written a Cherokee dictionary and a Constitution in book form
After six years of living teaching and organizing in the Wilderness
They got him

Christian Priber was ambushed by a group of Creeks in the pay of the English near the Indian village of Tallapoose in northern Alabama
where he had gone to consolidate alliances with the Muskhoge the Choctaws and the Western Mississippi tribes
He was accused of being an insurrectional French agent
and thrown into prison in Frederika Georgia
where he lived for a time and
where he died

But now
250 years later
that the Indian nations have been broken up and driven west to dusty empty leftover lands
leaving the English and the French and their millions of descendants to spread like a plague of locusts westward from the Atlantic Coast destroying the earth and filling the land with their shopping centers industrial parks ugly cities and crowded recreation areas
now that the paths of the Cherokees have become endless asphalt and concrete deserts crowded by murderous machines
where in the words of Robert Lowell “a savage servility/slides by on grease”

now that Sequoia means nothing more than another polluting power plant and Tellico is another huge embolism blocking one of the beautiful blood streams of the continent
where the oil slick of power motors the wake of water skiers and the poison of acid rain have drowned what used to be forests and shady streams
in the shadow of the hills that the Cherokee hunted and farmed which are now being stripped denuded decapitated and disemboweled for greed and luxury

it is time to think again of the dream of Christian Priber
and his work for a land where

The women and children will be equal and free with the men
there will be no poor and no rich
no exploitation no war and no pollution
where there will be only beauty and harmony
and where all will work together for the good of all…

for P is still for Priber
who is very much alive
though they let him die in prison
in 1745

and P is for his Progeny
and People who Protest
against the men who steal the land
and kill the wilderness

Red White and Yellow Black and Brown
we all must make a stand
and fight for Priber’s Paradise
a just and lovely land

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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