For Certain Kinds of Flowers

I even think now that the land of the entire country was hostile to marigolds that year. This soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers. Certain seeds it will not nurture, certain fruit it will not bear, and when the land kills of its own volition, we acquiesce and say the victim had no right to live.

–Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye

Powerful in both the imagery it evokes in the readers as well as the message it gives, Morrison’s text describes the negative effect an environment can have on an individual as seen with the comparison of marigolds to the ground and people to the environment. The environment is a powerful influence on the construction of the self. But if the soil is bad, then certain flowers cannot grow. If the environment is hostile, then people cannot survive.

But is it our responsibility to find soil that nourishes us and supports what we want to become? And if so, how do we go about finding such ground? Or rather, should we fight in the soil in which we were born? But then, when the land kills us, is Morrison right? Did we have no reason to live?

This project is a response to Morrison’s quote. I commissioned two poets, two visual artists as well as myself, to develop written and visual pieces inspired by and challenging Morrison’s metaphor. Her quote began as the seed and the works of art flourished as its fruit. My hope is that something within this project resonates strongly enough with the readers that they will also create works of art, not acquiesce, and continue to sow the seed.

They say you can’t grow

They say you can’t grow
This land is too barren.
The dirt is too cracked.
This rain is too toxic.

They say you won’t grow.
You have a limp in your walk.
You have a twang in your talk.

They say you shouldn’t grow.
Because white-washed books have taught
Your black history as inferiority
As a power struggle that succeeded to remind you
Of the poverty you will become,

This land is too barren.

But if we can alter the way you grow
Trim you down and prune you into
Something “manageable”
Something we find “pretty,”

If we force you to hate yourself
Will you finally crack under the pressure
And conform?

This land can be fertile if we beat hard enough.

With the twang in your talk
With the way that you walk
With the beauty of your face, you will grow.
Because unlike what you’ve been told,
You are powerful beyond measure.
Your roots can persevere.

And you as a marigold will bloom
Unfolding your petals burning with beauty
Red and yellow
Orange and gold
Ready to boast to the world your colors,

And they will love you.

                                                  —Lisa Jacques

 i cannot live on this red clay earth

 i cannot live on this red clay earth
take me far up the river bank
to the black soil shores where the
kudzu cannot reach and the salt was
washed away to give the young a chance

but i cannot labor in a backyard garden
where they prefer the delicate flowers
pressed into their books, where they cut off
the thorns of the rose to make her appear
more seemly and easier to handle

nor can i take a hand-out parcel of land
slashed and burned for a little taste of ash
to get me started until season’s end
and i am left with a wasted field
as they wonder why i am not grateful

just get me to the river and i will try
to grow something out of my lot
and if i starve on a blighted crop
grow mushrooms from my corpse
and craft a flowerpot from my head

                                          —Katharine Ryan

I wish that when people say

I wish that when people say,
“You should’ve known better”
That they would finish their sentence
Because I imagine that it would go something like this:

You should’ve known better than to
Expect to be safe
In this society where sexual violence
Is accepted as a fact of life—

You should’ve known better than to
Wear that short skirt
In a society that treats any piece of clothing
As “asking for it”—

You should’ve known better than to
Have had sex before
Because society translates your one “yes”
Into a reason to disregard any “no —

You should’ve known better than to
Not have fought back
In order to not be killed
Because that just means you wanted it—

You should’ve known better than to
Expect sympathy when we
Treat rape as a compliment
“He couldn’t control himself,
You are just too pretty”—

You should’ve known better than
To have thought your body is yours
When we treat the meat we eat
With the same respect as the skin on your bones—

You should’ve known better than to
Have gone to that party because
Putting yourself into that situation
Justifies anything that happened to you—

And I imagine that
When people start finishing their sentences
They’ll reveal less about the victims and more about
How we fail them
Each and
Every
Day.

—Rhiannon Maudlin

(Not) The Victim

Chanele Hemphill

All illustrations by Lauren Peinado.