Poet Amaud Johnson on violence and the minstrel show

“We’re always fighting to come to terms with the things we see…[and] to develop a vocabulary for that.” For the poet Amaud Johnson, one of those fights is to create a framework to manage what has always been in front of him.


The author of two books of poetry, Amaud Jamaul Johnson discussed his work in Hall on 15 February. His first book, Red Summer, which won the Dorset Prize, is about the race riots of 1919, during which nearly a hundred African American men in cities across the country were lynched. His second book, Darktown Follies, examines (and cross-examines) that very popular form of American entertainment for many years: the minstrel show.


Mr. Johnson described his hometown of Compton, California, as “a fairly violent place” during the ’70s to early ’90s. He acknowledges a kind of survivor’s guilt and recognizes his desire to historicize that violence as one of the forces that drove him toward poetry. “Was this narrative just connected to my street, my neighborhood? Or was there something larger, something embedded in our identity as Americans, and particularly as men, that created a seed for a certain kind of aggression?”


Mr. Johnson did extensive research into the race riots of 1919 for Red Summer. His poem “The Manassa Mauler” treats boxing—one outlet of this aggression contemporaneous with the race riots—and the bloodiest fight in heavyweight history.


“When I started reading more about this relationship between historical violence, sport, and racialized violence, it’s almost as if everything in my life seemed connected. The things that I began to see happening in my house, the things that were happening in the street, and the way I was reading history all helped me process this larger question in terms of who we are.”


Mr. Johnson wrote Darktown Follies in part to explore that “awkward space” created when comedy co-opts racialized violence. The title of one poem, “Pigmeat,” is named for Pigmeat Markham, the last African-American comic to perform in blackface. “Pigmeat’s joke is that [blackface] made him look lighter—which isn’t really a joke, but it depends on where you are in that conversation.”

What we laugh at says a great deal about who we are in a cultural moment. “We can look at our comedians as maybe the best among us because they can see these things that we’re still trying to figure out culturally. We laugh partly in recognition of a truth we haven’t really heard articulated in that way. But we’re also kind of uneasy, because we’re not really sure what it means.”

“So let’s say someone tells you a racist joke. You say, ‘Oh, that’s, like, racist,’ but because you were educated in a certain way, you think, I don’t want to say anything because I don’t want to draw attention to the problem. Maybe you just laugh to defuse the tension, but that laughter makes you complicit in the joke—right?—because that racist individual who said the joke now thinks that he’s funny. This is the strange tension in the way we negotiate humor.”

Mr. Johnson didn’t imagine himself a poet as a youth. In high school he was an athlete, but he was also on the debate team, where he learned to see an argument from all sides. “You almost have to fight against yourself to be able to process what the conversation is and then be able to pinpoint exactly what you want to say and how you want to say it. I began to think of poems functioning in the same way.”


“Part of what’s functioning at the heart of poetry is identifying the limits of language—when the word is insufficient, it collapses into metaphor. …I think something similar happens in comedy: you’re leading the audience to a point where they’re doing the cognitive work, where they think, Are you saying what I think you’re saying?… The most successful art forms seed participation. You have to work emotionally and intellectually to internalize that meaning.”

“Ultimately,” Mr. Johnson explained, that in poetry, as in comedy, “we’re always trying to figure out how to say the unsayable.”

Mr. Johnson earned degrees at Howard University and Cornell and currently teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he directs the Institute for Creative Writing. After Hall, he visited Kate Stearns’ senior writing class, and Cary Snider’s sophomore English class.