“Something unseen, some hand is motioning…”

The Brood X cicadas have risen again, crawling up our tree trunks, our wooden posts, our concrete foundations—any upright surface suits them fine. The last time they emerged, I was living in a city and wondering where I’d find myself after 17 years. Now here I am in the country, with the cicadas’ deafening song rattling the farm fields like a siren, as if announcing an endless emergency just beyond the tree line.

In 1800, my fellow Marylander, Benjamin Banneker, recorded his evolving awareness of cicadas in his astronomical journal:

The first great locust year that I can remember was 1749. I was then around seventeen years of age, when thousands of them came and was creeping up the trees and bushes. I then imagined they came to eat and destroy the fruit of the earth, and would occasion a famine in the land. I therefore began to kill and destroy them, but soon saw that my labour was in vain, therefore gave over my pretension. Again in the year 1766 which is seventeen years after the first appearance, they made a second, and appeared to me to be full as numerous as the first. I then, being about thirty-four years of age had more sense than to endeavour to destroy them, knowing they were not so pernicious to the fruit of the earth as I did imagine they would be. Again in the year 1783 which was seventeen years since their second appearance to me, they made their third; and they may be expected again in the year 1800, which is seventeen years since their third appearance to me. So that if I may venture so to express it, their periodical return is seventeen years: but they, like the comets, make but a short stay with us. The female has a sting in her tail as sharp and hard as a thorn, with which she perforates the branches of the trees, and in them holes lays eggs. The branch soon dies and falls. Then the egg, by some occult cause immerges a great depth into the earth, and there continues for the space of seventeen years as aforesaid.

I like to forgot to inform that if their lives are short they are merry. They begin to sing or make a noise from the first they come out of earth till they die. The hindermost part rots off, and it does not appear to be any pain to them for they still continue on singing till they die.

For those of us who feel trapped these days between competing tribes of vandals, Banneker’s note on cicadas is a model of civilized thought. Time, observation, contemplation, and a willingness to amend his prejudices all add up to a more mature understanding of the world, one that still allows for amusement, enchantment, and even a flicker of poetry. Where I’ll be in 17 years doesn’t matter—probably here in the same patch of woods on the same quiet road—but I hope we’ll find more Bannekers among us.

“Night is day, and twilight’s gone away…”

When the pandemic began, friends asked me what insights I could glean from studying and writing about the Middle Ages for as long as I did. “Nothing,” I told them, which remains true.

Yet I can’t shake the feeling that we’re living through an apocalypse—not necessarily in the religious, end-of-the-world sense, but in the literal meaning of the Greek word for a revelation or an unveiling. Here in our small town, we’ve learned, sometimes contrary to ordinary-time assumptions, which neighbors, including putative leaders, are useless in a crisis, and which ones possess unforeseen reserves of resourcefulness, selflessness, and hope. If we’re being honest, we’ve each discovered a few unflattering things about ourselves too, whether we admit it to others or not. I expect the disquieting clarity will linger even after clouds and fog return.

Every December I post a “best of” recap of the year that was. This was the year I took down the blog because of technical issues and brought it back to life on a stable new host. I shared news of a book I’d been working on for two years with my friends and neighbors, and then I offered thoughts about Mike Tyson’s fascination with Frankish history.

And that’s it. That’s not a prolific year, blog-wise, but given what 2020 has otherwise brought, the fact that we’re still here and I’m still writing will have to suffice. If you’re pass through this blog in the days and weeks ahead, I wish you, in all sincerity, a healthy and prosperous 2021.

“And this world’s a fickle measure…”

They told me, “You have to watch this interview where Mike Tyson talks about medieval history,” and so I did, and there he was at the New York Public Library in 2013 being interviewed by curator Paul Holdengräber, whose German accent strikes the American ear as both effortlessly intellectual and lightly amusing, and who would seem to have nothing in common with the face-tattooed boxer.

The two men do, in fact, find much to talk about. Their discussion is mesmerizing, because to most of us Mike Tyson is nothing but a face and fists, not a man who reflects aloud and at length about his inner life. Holdengräber prompts a reticent Tyson to narrate clips of his greatest moments in the ring, and newcomers to boxing will easily see why Tyson was such a sensation, but Iron Mike grows more animated when other matters arise.

Half an hour into the interview, Holdengräber says that their mutual friend, eccentric German filmmaker Werner Herzog, urged him to ask Tyson why he’s so fascinated by Clovis, the founder of the Merovingian Frankish dynasty, and Pepin the Short, the first Carolingian king of the Franks. Tyson’s answer, however halting, makes him come alive:

I don’t know—it all comes from my insecurity from being poor, and not having enough—to be insecure, and being—yeah, that’s what it is: obscure. I never wanted to be obscure. I was born in obscurity and I never wanted to deal with that again, never wanted to be that. And they came from obscurity.

Tyson then narrates a capsule history of the Frankish kings. He rambles, he doesn’t get all the details right, and his mispronunciation of names marks him as an autodidact, but it’s a shame to hear the audience laugh when Holdengräber asks, “Mike, how do you know all this shit?” Whether Tyson is mapping his own experiences onto medieval history or hearing echoes of the Franks in his troubled life, the credentialed, status-conscious audience is uncomfortable with his sincere interest in a past they find trivial.

Yet Tyson is the real deal, a book lover not because his peer group yaks about whichever author the New York Times has dubbed fame’s latest love child, but because he’s hungry for ideas, for meaning, for connections across time. He speaks with undisguised emotion about Cus D’Amato, the trainer and manager who turned him into a lethal boxer. Obsessed with Nietzsche and Clausewitz, D’Amato taught Tyson to see boxing as war and war as the key to decoding the world. “That is just what I do,” Tyson explains, an attentive pupil and dutiful son. “I love war. I love the act of war. I love the players in war, the philosophy of war.”

Tyson is searching for more than war on the pages of the past. Having grown up amid crime and chaos and founded his life on violence, he now relies on books to make moral and ethical sense of the world:

Yeah—they’re our most priceless possessions, because if you think about it, you know, a room without a book is like a body without a soul. It’s the only way that we can connect the future with the past. Without that, there’s no way that we can know about the future, and know about particularly the past, or the present, you know, that when you think about history, the value of history is not necessarily scientific but moral. By liberating our minds and deepening our sympathies and fortifying our will, we can control—pretty much history allows us to control not society but ourselves, which is a much more important thing to do, you know what I mean? And it would allow us to pretty much meet the future more so than foretell it, and for that reason alone, in order to predict the future we always have to look through the past, because very rarely does time not repeat itself, and it always will repeat itself.

I’ve heard a quote before in a book that we would be fools to think historically that the past is us in funny clothes, but the past is us in funny clothes, and that’s truly what it is. That’s from somebody who really said a really profound statement but he misquoted what he was saying, he must have been saying it backwards, because that’s really what the past was, it’s just us in funny clothes, in different times, that’s really what it is.

Of course, to hear Tyson cite a quip inaccurately attributed to Cicero, “a room without books is like a body without a soul,” is to wonder if he’s putting us on. Late in the interview, he jokes that if you quote books, you fool people into thinking you’re smart—but Tyson, for all his malapropisms and mispronunciations and odd mannerisms, is intelligent. He’s going round after round with big questions that many of the ostensibly educated attendees at his book-talk don’t bother to ask.

When Holdengräber suggests that Tyson’s knowledge of history didn’t improve his behavior, Tyson calmly disagrees. He compares himself to the fictional Ben-Hur, a fellow athlete and celebrity who achieved glory but was doomed to be unfree until he set his priorities in order: “He may not have been famous again,” Tyson points out, “but he got his family, and that was his success.”

After listening to Mike Tyson—childhood criminal, devastating fighter, struggling alcoholic and recovering drug addict, convicted rapist, pop-culture eidolon—speak for an hour and a half, I still don’t quite know who he is. He may be the closest thing 21st-century America has to a Robert E. Howard character, a born barbarian who’s ignorant of social niceties but possesses earned wisdom that the civilization around him disdains. I don’t know whether he’s all in on his bookish pursuits or one slight away from again gnawing off someone’s ear. Whether he’s a good man or a bad man feels foolish to ask about a professional punch-thrower who reads Nietzsche, but Tyson looks like a better man, one who has perhaps searched harder for his humanity than the onlookers snickering from the safety of their library seats. What has their pride gained them? Tyson’s, by contrast, has brought him perspective, and with it the humility to admit that his story is still being written—and has been before.

I Have Started for Canaan: The Story of the African American Town of Sugarland

I don’t have romantic notions about what writers do—but every so often, our work has profound implications for neighbors and friends.

In January 2019, I met two great-granddaughters of the founders of Sugarland, a town established by former slaves immediately after emancipation in rural Montgomery County, Maryland. My new friends were tenacious historians who had collected 150 years’ worth of sources—photographs, meeting minutes, construction contracts, land deeds, funeral programs, military records, church ledgers, oral histories, artifacts, you name it—and they were ready to turn their collection into a book for a wide audience. After nearly two years of brainstorming and collaboration, we’re finally putting that book in readers’ hands.

Defying familiar narratives of the African American experience that focus on sharecropping or urban life, I Have Started for Canaan is a remarkable chronicle of rural self-sufficiency. In a corner of the countryside 20 miles from the nation’s capital, the Sugarland families owned 200 acres of farmland immediately after the Civil War. At its height, their town boasted a schoolhouse, a general store, a post office, a practice hall for a brass band, and a church that still stands today. To the best of our knowledge, I Have Started for Canaan is the first book-length history of a Reconstruction-era African American town in Maryland.

To learn more about the work that went into this book and the richness of the primary sources in the Sugarland collection, check out this online presentation I gave in May. If you’d like to buy a copy, our friends at the Montgomery Countryside Alliance are fulfilling mail orders—or you can email me about obtaining a copy and paying via Paypal. (I’ll update this post as other sales venues become available.)

I Have Started for Canaan was a volunteer project for me, so every dime of profit from book sales will go back to the Sugarland Ethno-History Project for the upkeep of their cemetery and historic 1894 church, the preservation of their collection, and—if all goes well—the eventual creation of a small museum. I’m proud to have helped bring this story to the world, and I hope you’ll be as inspired as I was to hear the clear, confident voices of the Sugarland founders resound across 150 years.

“…and in this town of stops and starts…”

It took a few months, but I managed to transfer this blog to a new host. Links to posts from outside sources may no longer work, so if you’ve linked to a book review or favorite post in the past, you’ll need to find it via the search box in the sidebar and re-link to it.

On the plus side, the entire blog going back to 2007 has been restored, with special thanks to George for technical assistance that made it possible to save all of the photos as well.

If you’re new to this blog, welcome! For 13 years, I’ve used this site to write about America’s obsession with the Middle Ages, but I’ve also veered off into literature, history, formal poetry, and other topics that aren’t of interest to editors who actually pay for eyeballs and clicks. To see what I mean, browse the “categories” list in the sidebar, which includes the yearly “best of” posts.

Right now I’m focused on a project with a definite place in the world. For the past a year and a half, I’ve collaborated with two friends on a history of a Reconstruction-era African American town. The book will be available this fall; check out this video presentation from May and you’ll see why I’m enthusiastic about the story my friends’ ancestors have to tell.

(If the video doesn’t play, try clicking through to YouTube here.)

Thanks to all of you who sent emails, left comments, or shared thoughts on social media back in the spring. You convinced me that it was worth the trouble to keep the blog up and running. The traffic I get from search engines further suggests that someone, somewhere is always searching for more about a book, a poem, or a scrap of history that once caught my attention too.

Words aren’t precious; I don’t understand why all writers don’t have blogs for catching the sheer overflow of ideas, but I thank you for visiting mine. I may never post on a regular schedule, but I’ll offer you this: whatever turns up here you’ll never find anywhere else.

“Check if you can disconnect the effect, and I’ll go after the cause.”

On June 1, 2020, almost thirteen years to the day since it began, this blog will disappear. My hosting service is shutting down, and I don’t have time right now to find an orderly home for hundreds of old posts.

In truth, this blog has been held together by pipe cleaners and putty for years. I grappled with outdated PHP, hopeless security issues, and chunks of code I cobbled together myself. The site crashed every time I uploaded a tiny image. Line spacing and photo placement were never right. Vital plug-ins were incompatible with each other. A database with a will of its own made it impossible for me to write and post when I wanted.

Yet it’s been fun. People are surprised when I say that much of my favorite writing is on this rickety site, even though some of it may be outdated, indulgent, or regrettable. Several posts still get quite a few hits per day from people looking for subjects they’ll only find here. Over the years, those posts have drawn more eyeballs, and sometimes better feedback, than books and articles I’ve written that carry the supposed prestige of someone else having published them.

When I started “Quid Plura?” in 2007, I had just written a book about Charlemagne, and I was still in my ten-year run of teaching medieval literature. Everything has changed since then—where I live, how I live, and even what I research and write. For the past year and a half, I’ve been collaborating with the descendants of the founders of a local town to tell their long-awaited story. As far as we can tell, the book we’ll publish this summer will be the first full-length history of a Reconstruction-era African American town in Maryland. If you’d like to learn more about our project, check out this video presentation, which will be viewable online through May 11.

Later this year, I’ll probably re-establish this blog with a new host. I like having my own little corner of the Internet. Blogs, however unfashionable, foster independent speech, the most potentially measured exchanges, and long-form writing on topics for which there aren’t paying markets.

In the meantime, if you need to find me, I’m available by email (jeffsypeck –at- gmail –dot- com), I check Twitter occasionally, and I have a new website to show off my professional writing. In the past thirteen years, this blog has brought me new real-world friends and many faithful long-term correspondents. People who still read blogs are the best kind of weird. They find, as I do, that corporate social media reins in discourse and smothers thought. If you’re one of those readers, thank you! Blogs give us room to breathe. That’s why I can’t imagine “Quid Plura?” not returning when the time is right. There’s always more to say.

“People don’t sing like they used to sing…”

Every December I do a roundup of blog posts from the passing year, mostly as an easy index for my future self. This year has been the least prolific in the thirteen years I’ve been doing this, and I’m okay with that. Since January, I’ve been helping a local organization write a book that’s going to mean a great deal to people in my community, and possibly far beyond. It’s a good kind of busy.

In the meantime, I’m glad “Quid Plura?” still exists, in all its archaic glory, to serve as a notepad for notions that no one would foolishly pay me to write.

This year, the Old English poem “Deor” gave me insight into a botched Smithsonian exhibition about Maryland sharecroppers—and vice versa.

In November, I was involved in a ceremony with implications I’m still mulling over, but studying a medieval martyrdom half a lifetime ago helped me make sense of a modern lynching.

I took some time to look at some of the bigger artistic and cultural questions in “The Banjo Player” by Fenton Johnson, a poet who never quite found the audience he craved.

A pithy post about the fire at Notre-Dame de Paris held up better, so to speak, than blogging about the news usually does.

By contrast, we’ll see if these thoughts about speech, online mobbing, weird thinking, and bad faith in academia make sense down the road.

Happy new year to those of you who still wander this way! Check back in 2020. To my eternal surprise, there’s always more to say.

“Break all the windows in the cold, cold ground.”

A knight sliced in half like a sesame bagel, a saint tossed down a hillside in a barrel lined with nails—pain is an ageless wellspring of humor, but we were too weirdly willing to laugh. As graduate students, we were honing our sense of which aspects of the Middle Ages were born of certain eras and places and which others were timelessly human. Yet something about the classroom made the medieval world harder for me to imagine. The line of scholars whose work helped us understand the past in the first place also stood in the way of a gut-level sense of real people’s lives. Then the violence was never real, only a source of other people’s pictures or words, like an idealized painting or flippant cartoon.

That changed in our second year when we studied an account of the martyrdom of St. Eulalia of Merida by the fifth-century poet Prudentius. Even though Eulalia’s faith emboldens her to taunt her tormentors and laugh off her own suffering, the descriptions of her mutilation are horrifically clinical. As a class and on our own, we translated each of the poem’s 215 lines, sobered to find that two years of Latin had brought us to such a repellent place. What made Eulalia’s martyrdom different was that we didn’t merely read words on a page. We hoisted huge dictionaries, paged through grammars, flipped through stacks of handouts, trudged across campus to recite the Latin verse and our graceless English, and tensed up when called on to read. It may have been faint, but we felt something real in our muscles and bones, a memory carried for twenty-odd years.

Last month, our town hosted a ceremony to remember one of the worst things that ever happened here, the lynching of a black man. He was accused of attacking a young white girl, but a mob denied him the justice of a trial. Not long ago, elderly locals might have heard enough from their parents to be able to name the killers or point out the dead man’s grave. Now, except for snippets from scanned newspapers, the victim is as distant as a figure in a medieval text, a fictional character rather than someone who lived.

The site is still there, just a few long strides from the main intersection. It’s eerily open, like the grassy remnant of a battlefield declared sacred only after the rest has been paved. Locals say that within living memory, a storm blew down a massive locust tree; it may have been the makeshift gallows. The church across the street hasn’t changed, except for a gravel lot for cars where the congregation used to park horses and wagons. Families arriving for Sunday services the morning after the lynching could not fail to notice the constable cutting down a corpse.

I’ve toured historic homes that looked as if their famous residents had just stepped out for lunch. I’ve stood at sites where thousands died, and others where worn-away ruts in the ground begged the imagination to run reckless over the post-holes of hill-forts and mansions. Those places made me think, and think, and think. At times, though, I wanted to feel something more. No matter how many years I hewed and hacked through ninth-century sources, not once did I hear the eldritch murmurings of kings or monks or sense a spectral hand on my shoulder. History was dead; my job as a writer was to gather and narrate its traces.

I was leery of the plan to take soil from the lynching site. The act sounded too pious and medieval, like sifting for relics to venerate, or too frivolous and modern, like filling a keychain with sand from the beach. Even so, the morning before the ceremony, I drove to the field with a shovel and spade and met others tasked with preparing the site. The ground was pliant from days of rain, so with no special reverence, I peeled up one of four grassy squares and loosened the dirt underneath. When I looked up, kids in pickups still drove to McDonald’s for breakfast, and tractors kept on rolling out of town toward the last shriveling fields of the year.

On the next day, a cold, cloudless Sunday, more than a hundred onlookers formed a crescent around the gazebo next to the church. Some of us don’t have deep roots here, but scattered among us, and settled unknowingly in nearby houses, were descendants and relatives of everyone whose lives converged on that spot in 1880: the men who raised the lynch mob; former slaves who knew the victim; the constable who tried in vain to stop the murder; and the black congregation that claimed the body and laid it to rest. Ashes and dust—our past and our future, summoned to gather in flesh and blood, shifting uneasily at the story retold.

After a benediction, a proclamation, speeches, and poems, we turned from the churchyard and crossed to the field. Squinting in the stark, clarifying sunset, people lined up to scoop soil into jars. Some filled small canisters of their own. The motion and effort made sense; no one was left to chase around their windblown thoughts. The ground gave everyone something to do, exertion their bodies might feel and remember.

An event that began in mourning and solemnity concluded with hugs and handshakes and an unforeseen lightness of heart. No ghosts hovered near us or stood by the roadside and watched. The veil of the past hadn’t risen or torn, but the chasm between old, unacquainted truths was maybe no longer so wide. Justice for the dead isn’t ours to bestow, but empathy for those who suffered, whether a century or a thousand years ago, can make a field full of strangers tremble as one, if they do more than offer up words. If you wait half your life and the earth doesn’t move, don’t just stand there. Move it yourself.

“We’ve tried potions and waxen dolls, and none of us could find any cures…”

This blog has been fallow for six months. I regret the silence, but not the reasons. I’ve gotten involved in three local nonprofits, including one whose leadership asked me to help them write a book. Theirs is the sort of worthwhile project a history-writer dreams about, I’m working with good people, and I can’t wait until we share the book with our neighbors and the world in 2020.

In the meantime, beyond my little bend in the river, I see authors, readers, and scholars apparently losing their minds. A week ago, young-adult author Sarah Dessen took exception to a college student who disparaged her work in a South Dakota newspaper in 2016. Dessen began to insult the kid on Twitter and drew forth an online mob of readers, authors, and publishers who joined her in harassment and intimidation.

Not content to let publishing win the Worst Industry of the Week award, the student’s alma mater, Northern State University, tweeted a craven apology, choosing to suck up to a bestselling author rather than defend―or even ignore―one alumna who said what she thought of a book.

Why were people invested in the young-adult fiction industry, which rakes in more than $3 billion a year, so quick to pounce on a lone, unknown student who expressed her taste in literature three years ago? Perhaps some readers and authors, living by expired cultural templates, can’t yet fathom that they stand in the mainstream and no longer wield the moral authority of underdogs. It may be meaningful that the loudest voices representing young-adult literature on social media aren’t adolescents but thin-skinned adults. Too many aspiring writers are also so keen to feel collegial with big-name authors that they’re inclined to join an author’s side, eager for the righteous rush of communal fandom. No doubt it’s corrupting for authors to have fans who look to them for meaning and purpose beyond what their books can provide. Fame, wealth, and flattery are disastrous in realms far beyond politics.

* * *

People who write and read are also, I’m finding, more put off by strange, skewed, and unsanctioned thoughts than they used to be.

Decades ago, my middle-school interest in superhero comics eventually led me to pick up, every Friday for years, the weirdest indie comics on the shelves. The best and most engaging parts were the readers’ letters and rambling editorials. They read like the spillover from a mental storage unit packed to the ceiling with marginal notions and contrarian whims. We could regard the contents with amusement, step over them with discomfort, or root through them for our own purposes.

Delightfully, those commentaries didn’t slide smoothly into mylar bags of ideological simplicity. Their philosophical quirkiness would confuse and annoy today’s fans. In the past week, I’ve seen commentators and reporters react with confusion and annoyance to a 2017 interview with Alan Moore, the writer behind Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and other weirder, darker comics that somehow found homes with mainstream publishers in the ’80s. In the interview, Moore disavows his most famous work and warbles a rhapsody of challenging ideas:

What was the impact of popular heroes comic books in our culture? Why are people fascinated by alternative realities?

I think the impact of superheroes on popular culture is both tremendously embarrassing and not a little worrying. While these characters were originally perfectly suited to stimulating the imaginations of their twelve or thirteen year-old audience, today’s franchised übermenschen, aimed at a supposedly adult audience, seem to be serving some kind of different function, and fulfilling different needs. Primarily, mass-market superhero movies seem to be abetting an audience who do not wish to relinquish their grip on (a) their relatively reassuring childhoods, or (b) the relatively reassuring 20th century. The continuing popularity of these movies to me suggests some kind of deliberate, self-imposed state of emotional arrest, combined with an numbing condition of cultural stasis that can be witnessed in comics, movies, popular music and, indeed, right across the cultural spectrum. The superheroes themselves – largely written and drawn by creators who have never stood up for their own rights against the companies that employ them, much less the rights of a Jack Kirby or Jerry Siegel or Joe Schuster – would seem to be largely employed as cowardice compensators, perhaps a bit like the handgun on the nightstand. I would also remark that save for a smattering of non-white characters (and non-white creators) these books and these iconic characters are still very much white supremacist dreams of the master race. In fact, I think that a good argument can be made for D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation as the first American superhero movie, and the point of origin for all those capes and masks.

I love this: never-asked questions about why adults are now so enamored of power fantasies developed for adolescent boys; a swipe at extruded corporate entertainment products; a wistful ode to creators’ rights voided by work-for-hire contracts; a non-sequitur jab at gun owners; and a call to comics fans to think about the historical and sociological implications of superheroes. People who can’t laugh off these notions, mull them over, or counter them might do well to ask themselves why they hold their positions on popular culture as closely as religious dogma.

And yet I doubt that superheroes “are still very much white supremacist dreams of the master race,” and it’s too clever by half to claim that Birth of a Nation was “the first American superhero movie.” So what? Overstating causation doesn’t exclude the possibility of a connection. The creation of masked superheroes who operate outside or above the law overlaps with the era of the Klan’s masked “night riders” and comes not long after the raids of masked, costumed vigilantes in the “tobacco wars” in Kentucky and Tennessee (shown in the photo to the left).

Looking for the roots of American superheroes in a masked vigilante tradition may or may not pan out, but the idea is arguable. And even if he’s wrong here, in whole or in part, thank goodness for cranky old Alan Moore—because man, that’s a mind forever voyaging.

* * *

But then sometimes, complexity and ambiguity overwhelm those who work isn’t given to clarity. In September, the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists fell apart over the place of “Anglo-Saxon” in the organization’s name and in scholarship in general. Amid debates about the term, which is used by racists and white supremacists outside of academia, members on both sides quit in disgust, and the organization is now nameless.

The name change strikes me as surrender to racists, who will only appropriate whatever term of art the scholars of early medieval England choose next. When I went looking for reasoned arguments from both sides, I didn’t make it past scholars on Twitter accusing each other of bad faith and bickering over who’s doing more “antiracist work.” (I’m not going to link to their babyish squabbles.)

I’ve been writing about medieval history for 20 years, and for a decade of that time I taught medieval literature, but the online arguments among medievalists about anti-racist activism remind me of a more modern moment: Gonzo in The Muppet Movie traveling to Bombay to become a movie star because you go to Hollywood only “if you want to do it the easy way.” While everyone is capable of doing good in their own classrooms, cubicles, or cul-de-sacs, if your believe your primary vocation is to smash racism but you became a professor of medieval literature or history…well, I just hope a bear and a frog in a Studebaker give you and your chicken a lift.

“I can’t get unwound, why do I throw myself into the night…”

Poets pray for remembrance on the pages of an anthology—but whenever I saw Fenton Johnson’s poems in collections of African American verse, the selections were too limited for me to get a real sense of him. Fond of forgotten writers, I tracked down more of Johnson’s work to find out who he was and what he had hoped to become. My search only brought me back to his most anthologized poem, which takes on new meaning amid echoing debates about the medieval-ness of all things American.

The son of a wealthy Chicago family, Johnson earned a degree from the University of Chicago and studied at the Columbia School of Journalism. By 1913 he had self-published his first volume of poetry. Early on, he favored short, formal lyrics packed with medieval and classical references alongside Dunbar-esque dialect poems; later, he experimented (more successfully, I think) with free verse. Known to other modernists, he gathered several character sketches under the title “African Nights” and saw them published in Others for 1919: An Anthology of the New Verse.

The best of these later, more mature pieces combine the concision of poetry with a deadpan aversion to meter that keeps whimsy and sentimentality at bay. As a writer bobbing in the wake of medievalism, I particularly like this poem from “African Nights”:

The Banjo Player

There is music in me, the music of a peasant people.
I wander through the levee, picking my banjo and singing my
songs of the cabin and the field. At the Last Chance Saloon
I am as welcome as the violets in March; there is always
food and drink for me there, and the dimes of those who
love honest music. Behind the railroad tracks the little
children clap their hands and love me as they love Kris
Kringle.
But I fear that I am a failure. Last night a woman called me a
troubadour.
What is a troubadour?

The editor of The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader called this poem “simply ironic mischief.” Yes, an educated poet is enjoying a chuckle at the expense of an unsophisticated musician who is good at what he does but has never wondered for a moment what he is. But there’s quite a bit more to the poem than that.

The banjo player moves so naturally through his own life that he never says whether the people who love his music are white or black, as if he doesn’t imagine that the details might matter. The race of the woman who calls him a troubadour is less consequential than the word itself, which baffles and frustrates him. Is she a white woman who finds him charming and associates him with primitivism and archaism, or is she a black woman, perhaps an aesthete or would-be patron, who hopes to elevate a purveyor of folkways by using European terms? For the banjo player, pondering these complications could lead to troubling realizations about the world.

Johnson’s poem raises a larger question that gnawed at him, one that also occupied the poets and artists of the Harlem Renaissance: What relationship do African Americans have with European-derived civilization, and vice versa? There are also questions here for critics and scholars: Does too much thinking about form and taxonomy take all the fun out of art? Compared to audiences who react to his music with joy, is the woman who responds cerebrally missing the point?

The banjo player’s confusion over the word “troubadour” reminded me of the movement in medieval studies to promote a “global Middle Ages.” While I think it’s smart for medievalists to look beyond Europe, which hardly had impervious or easily defined boundaries back then, I find it odd that people in a field with bowstring sensitivity to the legacy of colonialism would talk about “medieval” Africa and “medieval” Asia, as if terms that mark the European timeline are an easy fit on other continents. (Alas, the promo copy on the back of my Charlemagne book refers to “medieval Baghdad.” Can’t win ’em all.) Likewise, a black American man who plays the banjo, an African-derived instrument, is not a medieval troubadour, even though the two are obvious artistic kindred. Is the woman failing to see the banjo player and his traditions on their own terms? If so, then what is she, despite her attempt at a compliment, not seeing?

In the 1922 edition of The Book of American Negro Poetry, James Weldon Johnson noted only that Fenton Johnson “is a young poet of the ultra-modern school who gives promise of greater work than he has yet done.” In a later edition in the early 1930s, he honed his critique, describing how Fenton Johnson had

disregarded the accepted poetic forms, subjects, and language, adopted free verse, and in that formless form wrote poetry in which he voiced the disillusionment and bitterness of feeling the Negro race was then experiencing. In some of this poetry he went further than protests against wrong or the moral challenges that the wronged can always fling against the wrongdoer; he sounded the note of fatalistic despair. It was his poetry written in this key that brought him recognition. The central idea of this poetry was startling. Doubtless its effect was in some degree due to the fact that it was an idea so foreign to any philosophy of life the Negro in America had ever preached or practiced. Fenton Johnson is the only Negro poet who has ever sounded this precise note.

Nine decades later, it’s no longer true that Fenton Johnson alone among African American writers gave voice to despair, but James Weldon Johnson makes his poems sound like a dead end. They’re not. Time has offered them new life and fresh possibility, especially if we give them room to be personal reflections rather than only pronouncements about race.

Read “The Banjo Player” again, and note how the wandering musician defines success as pleasing other people. Sure, that can be a metaphor for African American experiences, but it’s also a sigh of frustration from a poet who never achieved major success and eventually stopped writing for publication. “It seemed to me like trying to walk the Atlantic ocean to obtain recognition in the literary world and especially when one was attempting to present the life of the race to which I belong,” Johnson lamented in 1920 after writing three books of poetry, publishing a doomed magazine of his own work under different pen names, and founding a largely imaginary movement for racial reconciliation. He would soon sell five poems to Poetry magazine, but his pessimism was prescient. “I know that my dream of success in literature is fading,” he confessed, “because every story I have ever offered a standard magazine has returned to my desk.”

Who are we if no one pays heed to our work? Fenton Johnson knew: Writers and artists dread the exhaustion of misunderstanding and hate the ache of indifference, no matter where or when they lived, regardless of what you believe you should call them.


Left: Vielle players and a citoler player from the Cantigas de Santa Maria, c.1280. Right: detail from Henry Ossawa Tanner, “The Banjo Lesson,” 1893.