Tyehimba Jess, Leadbelly, and that Haunting Lesson

By Howard Rambsy II

Among large numbers of college students, poetry and poets have a reputation for addressing “soft” subjects or better yet for softly addressing subjects. The young people who enroll in my literature classes arrive with ideas about how poems concentrate on love, inspiration, and the beauty of nature. And sure, many poets address those topics. However, given their preconceived notions about poetry, students often express surprise when we cover a volume like Tyehimba Jess’s leadbelly and encounter tough and bitter tones regarding racial conflict in the volume.

The musicality and lyricism of Jess’s poems in the book offer some semblance of the poetry that readers are accustomed to, but the necessarily rugged timbre of a book about the life a bad man nicknamed Leadbelly unsettle many of my students from the view of poetry that they had before they arrived to my class. The anger, violence, and tension that emerge at moments throughout the volume do not always coincide with much of what the young people read in their language arts classes in secondary school or their other literature courses in college. Students are somewhat primed for absorbing poems that highlight black-white conflict when those pieces concentrate on slavery and struggles for liberation.

Many students have watched television programs or heard about slavery, and several have read Frederick Douglass’s Narrative. Thus, even students who are hardly familiar with African American poetry tend to expect poems about slavery to contain somber tones and troubling descriptions of violence against enslaved people. The students are less prepared for the treatments of racial exploitation and the demeanor of Leadbelly that they are confronted with in Jess’s book.

Fittingly, the opening poem of the book “leadbelly’s lessons” sets the atmosphere for what is to come throughout the volume. In the poem, Leadbelly reflects on his experiences at 12-years-old playing guitar at the insistence of a drunken store owner, Mr. Haney, who realizing his own limitations as a musician, pushed the black boy to play. As the young Leadbelly offered tunes, Mr. Haney would “think on the hurt a white man can do” and “without second thought—he’d slur / nigger, someday i’m gonna kill you. / and stagger home.”

The word “slur” performs double duty, suggesting primarily the sound of the drunken Haney’s words and slightly hinting at the insulting use of the word “nigger.” Leadbelly goes on to recount that “it was there, alone, / in the dark, darkness of me” after hearing those drunken and racist threats “that i first learned the ways / of pure white envy.” Interestingly, Leadbelly expresses gratitude for the early lesson in his closing: “thank you, mr. haney, /for teaching me…”

Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter was born in 1885, and during the last years of the 19th century when he was 12, a drunk, white store owner in Louisiana would have hardly faced negative consequences for hurling racial insults at a black child. Leadbelly, at least from the perspective Jess presents, views Haney’s behavior less as an example of racism and more as a case of “pure white envy,” a distinction that opens up new ideas and considerations for the students in my class.

The students, in fact, would have an easier time processing the idea that Haney was simply racist. However, that his threats of racial violence were preceded by his feeling of envy with a black boy offers a more complex rendering of a possible root of anti-black racism. Leadbelly’s expression of gratitude for the “lesson” that Haney offered also usefully disturbs readers. Apparently, Haney’s racially problematic treatment of a black boy constitutes a curriculum that Leadbelly will encounter throughout his life.

If we read Leadbelly’s expression of thanks to Haney as sarcastic, then we feel a little safer than when and if we read his tone as calm and even respectful. That is to say, if the appreciation is genuine and non-ironic, then we must face the hard fact that the lesson Haney provided Leadbelly assisted in preparing him for the threatening and racialized challenges he would encounter throughout his life. More immediately for us as readers, “leadbelly’s lesson” suggests that subsequent poems in the book will include circumstances dealing with the implications of “pure white envy.”

Some of us realize how much our current vocabularies fail us when we mention how much we “like” Jess’s opening poem. Why would you “like” a poem that features a white man threatening to someday kill a black boy? Usually, we are inclined to “like” poems that are funny, inspiring, and expressions of love, not ones where black men highlight the lesson they learned from white hatred.

As we work our way through the volume, we are haunted by the tone set by “leadbelly’s lessons.” When we encounter those poems revealing the tensions between Leadbelly and his one-time handler John Lomax, for instance, we realize that the opening poem had warned us or foreshadowed what was coming. Overall, we realize that the grit and toughness we are exposed to in leadbelly constitutes a relatively rare poetic experience for us. In some respects, Leadbelly’s lessons become ours, and further, we learn to expect and appreciate a broader range of tonalities in poetry. Thank you, Tyehimba Jess, for teaching us.