Sing Silence by Le Hinton
Iris G. Press, 2018
Review by Andrea Dickens
How does a person wade through life, when everyday objects remind them of the oppressive history of slavery and its still-brutal aftermath? That question is the challenge Le Hinton’s book Sing Silence presents. Cotton, the crop that drove the south and its economy based on slavery, is the conversation partner whom Hinton interrogates about everyday life in 21st-century America.
As I’ve read this book a few times over the past year, this book has done something startling: each reading of it brings new insights and the work always seems fresh and ready to reveal even more. This book is both a dialogue with and interrogation of cotton. It explores both the history of cotton throughout the world, for instance as a beautiful flower in historical China, and also as a tool of oppression and slavery in the antebellum American south. But this book is very rooted in 21st century America, with ruminations on police brutality, mass shootings, telemarketers, church burnings, and love and loss. As such, the question that lingers is whether this brutal history is really in the past, or how it shapes our present as well.
Cotton becomes the present-day connection Hinton finds to talk to the many ancestors he feels connected to, or wishes to get to know better. It is something his ancestors picked, and something ubiquitous in his daily life as sheets, clothes, and other everyday items. His conversation builds as it inquires about the economies that placed such values on crops, but his interrogation also points to how even our current economy often places only cash value on people and their lives.
When cotton speaks, it speaks not just of itself; it speaks the truths of black people and their experiences shaped by slavery, cotton plantations, and systemic racism:
“I didn’t ask anyone to make anything from my body.
I didn’t tell anyone to sail ships, kidnap
Human beings, then force them
To pull my body apart on the land
Where I grew up.” (79)
At the heart of this book is a searching for a sense of connection. Many times, Hinton switches between conversations with distant ancestors, only to then talk about his brother. He challenges us to accept connection, even with all its difficult baggage. There’s a sense of continuity between those in our family pasts and those alive today. And yet the relationships in the book all have a spectral quality. The ghosts of ancestors, real or imagined, float through the stories. Their relationships and the stories told about ancestors cast shadows over the relationships between the narrator and his family. We learn about two brothers, James and Joseph. They ran away, but only James was caught. The question of missing ancestors hangs over several poems both as a question and a hope.
Family is complex, like all things in this book. At center is the relationship of Hinton and his wife. It can refer to him as son and his father. It can look further back towards ancestors. And it can mean feeling a familial connection with the victims of police shootings of young black men today. His poem “Watching Antiques Roadshow with Tamir” contrasts watching an appraisal of a 19th century folk art cotton boll wreath celebrating the production of cotton with the author imagining Tamir Rice sitting in the author’s living room. The next item up for appraisal, a whip used on a plantation, was used on the bodies of young black men on the plantation. Hinton compares this whip to the bullets in the cop’s gun. Tamir’s gesture holding up the bullet for appraisal reinforces that he knows his killing is part of this same deadly lineage (74-75).
At times, the narrator plays with the legacy of cotton. In the poem “Gossypium,” (32) named after the botanical name of cotton, Hinton writes about buying a cotton plant at the local garden center, to bring it home, take selfies with it, and to nurture it only to ration its water and watch it dry up and die. The reader sees the ancestor of the liberated become the persecutor. And the reader feels both the delight of the narrator and his internal conflict. In other poems, cotton is the cotton ball used to clean wounds. Cotton is also the handkerchief we use to mourn a loved one. It is the jeans our ancestors wore and which we wear. It is the robe of our partner. Cotton is conflict, both historical and internal: it is not easy to put cotton in one box labelled “good” or “bad.”
This book is a tough, intimate exploration of the everyday objects that help create a sense of the lives we live, from the old black sock his father used as a chalk board eraser to the hats, handkerchiefs, etc that are used in everyday life. The Amish and Charleston quilts that help him connect to the victims of the shooting in the Amish schoolhouse and the shooting in the Charleston church (48). The cotton dress Rosa Parks wore in the photo of her sitting on the bus (65).
Throughout the course of the book, we feel an uneasy resignation or recognition start to emerge. The early book has the young hatred of cotton, as exemplified in “Joseph / Age 10” when he says, “I hate you, Mr. Cotton. I’ll hate you till the day my skin turns white.” Halfway through, he mentions, “My grandfather wore jeans almost every day.” (29). He sees the ancestors as an example of how to act, and says, “Deep into this life, I consider the fabric of those men, / their days of blood and pain.” In the beginning of the book, the ancestral stories and their experiences produce anger at the systems and people who enslaved them and frustration what if they could have fled slavery to Canada. But by the end of the book, we have a sense that something has shifted, perhaps has softened in the narrator. It’s a book that shows growth and change in the person, not just in the different generations or times we have lived in. And that change takes place through the internal dialogue of the poems themselves. It isn’t a giving in, but a new type of resilience and resistance.
A big takeaway from this collection of poems is that history cannot be seen as absolutes. Nor can it be seen as distant or unconnected from the present and our personal familial histories. History and its legacies are complicated, and we are also complicated. Cotton’s commonplace nature obscures its terrible history. Cotton is shown to be a plant with such a history that is entwined with slavery and oppression, while it is also the fabric which our beloved wears and which we use to mourn those we have lost. And it is something we also live side by side with, finding a way to make peace with it and with its history. This book, which at the beginning gives us the spectre of absolutes, navigates us through how this one author confronts daily the violent histories still at the center of daily life. Systemic racism is not something mediated on the television screen, but is what we wrap ourselves in when we reach for a towel, wear a pair of jeans. And in probing the legacies and modern day realities of cotton and systemic racism, the book is a beautiful, and painful, look at both personal and social histories and how they shape us all as humans, families, and communities.
Purchase this book directly from DogStar Books or make a donation of $15 or more to Lancaster Cleft Palate Clinic, contact Iris G Press through the form email linked, and they will send a copy directly to you.
Andrea Janelle Dickens is originally from the Blue Ridge Mountains and now lives in the Sonoran Desert, where she resides among the sunshine and saguaro cacti. Her work has appeared in New South, Ruminate, and The Wayfarer. When not reading and writing poems, she’s making ceramics in her studio or tending hives of bees.