Sep. 4, 2004
Evolution in Indiana
Poem: "Evolution in Indiana" by Richard Cecil, from Twenty First Century Blues © Southern Illinois University Press. Reprinted with permission.
Evolution in Indiana
I thought that species took ten thousand years
to gradually evolve new strategies
to deal with shifts in climate or environment,
but after two snow-free years in a row
the local robins all at once decided
to winter here instead of flying south.
I watched them pace my lawn in late November,
debating like small Hamlets with their instincts:
"It's way past time to migrate; why haven't I?"
Since, every fall, a few old feeble ones
decide they'd rather risk starvation here
than drop off dead of fatigue in Alabama,
at first I thought it was their kind I glimpsed
rummaging discarded Christmas trees
for grubs and squabbling with the greedy squirrels
stealing birdseed from my neighbor's feeder.
But then, one drizzly January walk,
I spotted dozens, looking sleek and healthy,
plucking worms who'd washed up on my sidewalk.
Why here, where I was forced to grub for money
all winter long, when they could fly away,
I wondered as they hopped out of my path.
Does flying hurt so much they'd rather shiver
and see the sun once every other week
than perch in palms swayed by an ocean breeze?
If I had wings, I'd use them…and on and on
I muttered as I trudged around the block
in pointless circles, just for exercise,
hands thrust into my pockets, arms tight to sides,
like some huge flightless bird, while overhead
the most successful members of my species
winged effortlessly southward in high Boeings
invisible from our side of the clouds —
we well-fed and hard-working flock of Dodos.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the novelist Richard Wright, born in on a farm near Roxie, Mississippi (1908). He grew up in Jim Crow's South, the son of a sharecropper and a schoolteacher. His grandparents had been slaves. His father abandoned the family when Richard was five years old. He moved with his mother to Memphis. He lived with various relatives and attended school sporadically, but he taught himself to read by secretly borrowing books from the whites-only library in Memphis. He said, "My days and nights were one long, quiet, continuously contained dream of terror, tension, and anxiety."
As a teenager, he got a job as a newspaper delivery boy, and he used the money he made to buy dime store novels and pulp fiction magazines. He published his first story when he was fifteen: a horror story called "The Voodoo of Hell's Half-Acre."
In 1927, he followed the Great Migration of blacks from the rural South to the urban centers in the North, winding up in Chicago. He hoped that he would find better jobs and less racism in the North, but in his autobiography Black Boy (1945), he wrote, "My first glimpse of the flat black stretches of Chicago ... mocked all my fantasies. Chicago seemed an unreal city whose mythical houses were built of slabs of black coal wreathed in palls of gray smoke, houses whose foundations were sinking slowly into the dank prairie."
Wright found a city where blacks and whites sat on streetcars next to each other, bought newspapers at the same newsstands, ate at the same restaurants. He'd always known the rules in the segregated south, but in Chicago, he suddenly had no idea how he was supposed to act. At his first job as a dishwasher, he was shocked when a white waitress asked him to help tie her apron. He did so, and later wrote, "I continued my work, filled with all the possible meanings that tiny, simple, human event could have meant to any Negro in the South where I had spent my hungry days."
Wright spent ten years in Chicago, working as a ditch-digger, delivery boy, hospital worker, and a postal clerk. He began to write short stories and his first book was the collection Uncle Tom's Children (1938). Two years later, he published his masterpiece Native Son (1940), the story of a black man named "Bigger Thomas" who gets a job as a driver for a beautiful, young white woman and then accidentally kills her. Wright based the character on every bully, rebel, and outlaw he'd ever known.
The Book-of-the-Month-Club demanded that he delete some of the more explicitly sexual scenes from the novel, and publishers worried that even the edited version would be too shocking for most readers. But Native Son sold 215,000 copies in three weeks and went on to become the first bestselling novel by an African American writer. The unedited text of the novel was finally published in 1991.
Richard Wright said, "I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of hunger for life that gnaws in us all.
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