There are memoirs—internal, divulgent, and often confessional—and then there are autobiographical accounts of history. Debut author Sybil Haydel Morial’s Witness to Change: From Jim Crow to Political Empowerment, employs these alternating forms deftly, ultimately evading classification. The Jim Crow South serves as backdrop to the author’s childhood in an African-American household in New Orleans. But as the book opens, we hear more about Morial’s school memories, of the singular tastes and aromas of Nola, and of her close relationship with her sister, Jean—a young woman suffering from a mysterious and ultimately fatal genetic condition. The personal becomes political as Morial accounts her college years in Boston, as well as her experience of falling for the late Ernest Nathan “Dutch” Morial, an activist law student who in 1978 went on to become the first black mayor of New Orleans.
Spring break of my seventh-grade year was not my wildest on record, though what it lacked in the usual spring break trappings it made up for in folk art and maple syrup. Years later, my mother admitted she’d planned our road trip to Bennington, Vermont on a lark, lured there by the prospects of a Grandma Moses exhibition. Though my younger brother and I didn’t share Mom’s enthusiasm for Grandma Moses, we shared her minivan nonetheless. 700 miles later, we arrived at our destination—or almost. As we drove in circles in search of Grandma’s art, we found instead a rare eyesore on the otherwise unblemished terrain.
For the next installment of my “Food and Sexuality” series, I’m going to remain on the African continent and travel over to Ethiopia so we can discuss Kebra Nagast, or “Glory of the Kings.” This literary text full of myth, history, allegory, and apocalyptic storytelling is thousands of years old and details the Solomonic line of Ethiopian kings from around 400 to 1200. The stories begin with Menelik, who was believed to be the son of King Solomon and Queen Makeda.
Now seems an apt time to talk about persona. Remarkably, America has recently been talking about how we perform our selves: culturally, racially, gender-wise. How do you know you are a woman? What are the surface markers of race and culture, and how do they relate to the deep, lived experience of those things? These are questions many anthropology and gender-studies professors never thought they would see outside of their classrooms. For writers, they are also design questions: how might we enter another’s consciousness without stealing? Why do we feel moved to write in someone else’s voice?
These poems certainly elicit skepticism, but they are more than simple conceptual or design exercises. They have an oddly effective way of opening up. This is the sort of art you think you could easily make, but when you sit down to it, you make something of horribly poorer quality. Artful elimination requires a deeply tuned dedication, a kind of mental conditioning. This is how John Beer—former assistant to Lax and editor of this collection—roughly describes it in his wonderful introduction: during the writing of these poems, Lax led a spare, if not ascetic life on the Greek islands, handwriting notebooks worth of work—several poems a day—from which he would later select and typeset only the very best “worthy of preservation.”