It is tornado season again in the South. This year the storms blow in alongside a pandemic. I call my mother in Clearwater, Florida, among the palm trees, from my home in North Carolina, among the Loblolly Pines. In the early morning, my family slept through a tornado warning in Durham County—my spouse and I waking as the loudspeaker blared its warning announcement from the nearby high school. The winds and rains pass us by, bringing cooler weather behind them. We bring our potted vegetables into the garage at night.
My mother and I talk tornados and storms. We measure our life by storms in the South—by the names of storms that share their names with us as women: Fran, Katrina, Isabel, Florence.
My mother says: “You have never seen a tree as evil as a palm tree looks in a storm—like black fingers against the sky.” And I laugh at my mother’s Southern-Gothic-meets-New-England-Complaint description. A dramatization—who knows why.
But when I go to write down her words—a hazard of having a writer in the family—I pay more attention to the color black, the personification of the palm trees as a Black body. I start to write a poem about the storms as a marker of days in my life—“This calendar of water / and wind, bent trees”—but I circle back to my mother’s words about the palm trees. “Like black fingers,” sits at the end of a poem like a lead weight. The poem cracks under it.
I write the next four lines before abandoning the poem:
How merciless are you with the language of your family? I’ve begun to reach for my pruning sheers when they open their mouths.
I worry that my instinct is to meet violence with violence—that I think I could transform another person’s language by wounding them. Pruning shears. My mother. On the one hand, forgiveness is a practice. Like pruning, it has to be performed, again and again. Living things need that kind of care—hourly, daily, seasonally. On the other hand, white supremacy is not mine to forgive: in my own mouth, in the mouth of my family, in the mouths of other white people. Words are also deeds, and these speech acts actively harm BIPOC and their daily lives. White supremacy is rooted in the language of the black fingered palms.
My mother is hardly alone in her use of anti-Black language (see how we have shifted from imagery to language at large, from the use of “whiteness” to the actual nature of the language: anti-Black). The canon of Western literature stands behind her, from colonial ballads to John Berryman’s The Dream Songs. 20th-century poetry, especially, loves a poem culminating in the glorification of a white image—a white light, a white burst of flowers, a dazzling white reflection on the water. In such usages, the white image might be argued to speak to clarity, to transcendence, to a higher plane of thought and being. You can’t unsee the white image once you know it is there, say in Frost’s poetry, peering up at the reader from the lip of a well, or enfolding the town in snow.
Power conducts itself through language like electricity through a copper wire; it burns through our images; it holds more than we acknowledge.
Why can’t the palms looks ominous and storm-driven without the summoning of the Black body, without creating an anti-Black specter for an unspoken (yet presumed) white audience? Those of us who are white need to ask ourselves this question as deeply as we can. The pictures we make of the world, the imagery we see around us, the bodies we use to personify the uncertainty and threat of spring storms—this language tells us who we are and, more importantly, it shows others who we are.