“Harriet Tubman” by John G. Darby from Wikimedia Commons
By Melinda Ruth
A Conversation with Ashley M. Jones
here are certain things I respond to in poetry—a powerful voice, spellbinding rhythm, and form that not only mirrors the content, but adds greater depth. Ashley M. Jones’s poetry does all of this and more. Through beautiful and unflinching language, Jones melodically weaves the narrative of Harriet Tubman’s life with the experiences of women of color today.
The spring 2019 issue of the Oxford American excerpts four poems from Jones’s collection, dark / / thing. By assuming the voice of Harriet Tubman, Jones confronts concepts of womanhood, euro-centric beauty standards, and the institutionalized racism of a capitalist society. In this interview, Jones reveals why she chose Tubman as her subject and what she hopes readers will understand about living as a woman of color after reading her work. “Harriet Tubman breaks through with the kind of Black womanhood that defies every stereotype,” she explains. “She was strong, yes, but she was also a mother and wife. She was loved. She was not a sellable item.”
Jones’s poems are potent, candid, and subversive, gentle, feminine and exquisitely human. Not unlike Harriet Tubman herself.
With so much already written and produced about Harriet Tubman, what inspired you to write about her? How does your presentation of this historical figure differ from, or expand on, what a typical textbook might include about her life?
I’ve been struck by Harriet Tubman since I was a child—I still remember memorizing Eloise Greenfield’s “Harriet Tubman” in the second grade for a class project. That moment, when I literally stepped into Harriet’s clothes (well, my interpretation of them), I felt just a little drop of the power she must have had. I felt like I mattered as a Black person, because my history was there, printed on a page of a book. Harriet was a hero! I chose to write about her because she matters, and because so often, we take away the humanity of these heroes, especially if they’re women of color. This country (read: world) has a history of taking away Black women’s ability to be seen as human, tender, feminine, worthy of respect and protection. I wanted to give some of that back to Harriet, who has gone down in history as a superhuman force, not necessarily a woman whose life was multifaceted.
In the poem, “Harriet Tubman Crosses the Mason-Dixon for the First Time,” readers can almost physically feel the relief and wonder of the moment when Tubman first steps foot into the North. How does this poem inform the rest of the series?
This poem was actually the first one I wrote, much earlier than the others (a year or more prior). At the time, I hadn’t imagined the other pieces, so this piece had to do a few things at once.
First, I wanted to show this moment of freedom and I wanted to imagine the incredible glory of this moment, the bright and violent joy that must have swelled in Harriet’s heart. But, I didn’t want to make it all rainbows and doves and happy happy American triumph. I wanted to show how that glory made Harriet realize she had to take back what had been stolen: human lives. This gorgeous light wasn’t just freedom, but the ability to call oneself human. I wanted that light to also be a fire which indicted those who owned slaves, which burned in Harriet as she traveled back and forth those many times.
“Harriet Tubman, Beauty Queen or Ain’t I a Woman?” confronts multiple themes of black feminism, anglicized beauty standards, and the permutations of being a woman of color in America. How does Harriet Tubman act as a lens for viewing those themes?
Where do I begin? Truly, it seems like too long a history to even track.
When you think of the idea of Black femininity and feminism in America, you have to start with slavery. Of course, the history of Black women doesn’t begin with slavery, but for those of us who are a part of the diaspora, slavery is often a place where the big colonial friction begins. And that colonial friction rubs its way into a big blister whose scab never gets to form because the Western world just keeps picking away at it.
Slave women were rarely seen as soft, lovable, tender, beautiful, or whole. They were seen as work horses, as harder and stronger than their white counterparts. They were seen as overly sexual, as unfeeling, as happy to take care of white babies. Complacent under the white master’s rape. None of this, of course, was true, but perception is everything in this society and the gaze of the oppressor is what lasts for centuries.
Black women are still battling these views on our personhood. We fought a similar battle within feminism itself, which made womanism necessary, and later, intersectional feminism. Harriet Tubman breaks through with the kind of Black womanhood that defies every stereotype. She was strong, yes, but she was also a mother and wife. She was loved. She was not a sellable item. She was not up for any mess—as Eloise Greenfield said, “Harriet Tubman didn’t take no stuff / wasn’t scared of nothing, neither.” To me, she is beauty, she is grace, she is Miss America; America would never name her that, because she had hard features and was Black and proud, but she is what America is actually made of.
The poem “Harriet Tubman, Beauty Queen or Ain’t I a Woman?” also addresses the idea that Harriet Tubman wasn’t beautiful. Many people have commented on her distinct look and called it ugly. I reference Lucille Clifton’s poem “Black Women,” in which Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman discuss, in an imagined conversation, why slave women aren’t able to be painted up and powdered like white women. I conclude that Tubman is as beautiful as any twinkling star. Her beauty makes me see my own beauty, too, in a world which still privileges white skin and straight hair and only certain parts of the Black body stapled on everyone else.
Not only do you employ a traditional form in “Broken Sonnet in Which Harriet Is the Gun,” but you break it. Can you explain how you landed on this structure?
During the time I wrote these poems, I had a bit of a love affair with sonnets. For this love, I credit Gwendolyn Brooks. In her book, Gay Chaps at the Bar, there’s a sonnet called “Surely” and it is spectacular. It showed me, as all of her work does, that sonnets—a form hailed as one of the finest kinds of poetry—can have a warbling rhythm, can be written about trouble in love, can be written by a Black woman and follow all the rules white academia said we couldn’t possibly learn how to follow. So, I wrote sonnets. The breaking takes that work a step further. Sure, I’ll write a sonnet, but I’ll do it how I want to. It isn’t neat because this situation isn’t neat, and I can reclaim power of the form by making it my own.
In both “Beauty Queen” and “Broken Sonnet” history is in conversation with the present: the debate on the twenty-dollar bill, the tweet in 2016, and the references to bell hooks and Lucille Clifton. What can Tubman’s story offer to modern society?
I think, the older I get, I realize how much my people had to go through and still go through—it’s amazing. Here is Harriet Tubman, a woman we learn about very briefly in grade school, whose whole life is distilled to “Underground Railroad.” But when you think about what that actually means—born into slavery, hit on the head with iron by a white master, chosen by God to lead a huge revolution and lead enslaved people on the most dangerous path to freedom, fear of capture at every moment, all the other pains and pearls of womanhood and motherhood and being a wife—that’s a lot.
I wanted to commune with her spirit, to thank her for what she did for me, for all of us. I wanted to recognize her humanity and her superhuman actions. She can teach us about sacrifice, and what it means to fight for the citizenship so many of us never had. In this political climate, it’s important to learn these stories, not as just a testament to this elusive “American spirit,” but to the fact that it’s not an alien force that creates these horrific situations, it’s America itself.
The U.S. Treasury announced in 2016 its plan to place Harriet’s face on the twenty-dollar bill, replacing President Andrew Jackson, who advocated sectional peace by denouncing abolitionists. How would replacing Jackson with Tubman alter her story and, by extension, our history?
I’m of two minds on this issue. When the news first came out, I was very excited about a Black person on American money. “Maybe,” I thought, “this is what it means for us to have finally won.” I think many people, understandably so, were angry because Harriet was against the very system that created money and its power, and she would become a symbol of this capitalist machine that thrived on the lives of the very people she saved.
Maybe if we weren’t what we are, if the world wasn’t one whose fuel looks a lot like Black people’s blood, I would still be very excited about a Harriet Tubman twenty-dollar bill. But, that’s not the case. I’m not sure I want this country to be able to speak Andrew Jackson’s name in the same breath, on the same bill, as Harriet Tubman. Until we are all free of the white patriarchy, of the oppressive capitalist system that keeps so many people in suffering, I’m not sure we can honestly put any revolutionaries like Harriet on our currency.
dark // thing, the collection in which these poems appear, was published this past February through Pleiades Press. How do these excerpted poems fit into the work as a whole?
These poems are a part of the story I hope I’m telling successfully in this book: the story of Black people in America and our battle to not be seen as the “things” America needs to see us as in order to keep raping, pillaging, and killing us. Harriet’s story is a very important one in that history, as she took a stand against this system directly, literally stealing back our humanity from the oppressor. She shows us what is necessary and what is possible to make our people’s freedom a reality.
Enjoy this conversation? Order the Spring 2019 Issue