The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project examines the legacy and lasting effects of slavery on American life through a compilation of writing and imagery.
This past week, the project published a poem by Colorado State University English Professor Camille T. Dungy. She is one of 16 writers asked to dissect consequential moments in African American history through poems and stories.
Dungy’s poem, “On Brevity,” is a reflection on the 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama — a convergence point for civil rights activity at the time. The attack killed four girls and injured at least 14 people. Three of the four conspirators were convicted; the fourth died before trial.
“On Brevity” incorporates the full text of a previous poem titled “Brevity” — a part of Dungy’s award winning 2017 collection Trophic Cascade.
In her recent poem, she examines the 1963 bombing through her own experiences as an African American woman and mother.
My daughter’s three months old. A nightmare
rocks me awake, and then fourteen words: Brevity.
As in four girls; Sunday dresses: bone, ash, bone, ash, bone.
The end. 1963, but still burning. My darkening girl
lies beside me, her tiny chest barely registering breath.
Had they lived beyond that morning, all the other explosions
shattering Birmingham — even some who called it home
called it Bombingham — three of the girls would be 70,
the other 67. Somebody’s babies. The sentences I rescue
from that nightmare, I make a poem. Four names,
grayscaled at the bottom of the page:
Addie Mae Collins. Cynthia Wesley. Carole Robertson. Denise McNair.
Revision is a struggle toward truth. In my book I won’t keep, The end.
For such terrible brevity — dear black girls! sweet babies — there’s been no end.
Close to home
The bombing carries personal significance for Dungy, stemming from an experience shortly following her daughter’s birth.
“I was startled in the middle of the night by this nightmare of this event,” she said. “I’d given birth to this black child, and in raising my daughter, I continue to be haunted by these, actually recent memories.”
She noted that some of the bombing victims would likely be living today.
“Those girls wouldn’t have been particularly old,” she said. “We’re not talking about ancient history; we’re talking about yesterday. It’s so close to who and how we are. It’s so important for us to keep a hold of.”
At the same time, Dungy said, her body of work has focused largely on historical restoration. It brings history into the present and helps people understand how it shapes their lives and experiences.
“The whole 1619 project is about that,” she said. “Capitalism, the freeways, healthcare — it’s all shaped by this history.”
Dungy hopes the 1619 project will play a significant role in an overarching “historical corrective.”
“I’m interested in having people who say ‘it’s difficult to confront’ come away with an appreciation for having this knowledge,” she said. “And I want people who already know this history to find affirmation in seeing such a major outlet as The New York Times Magazine taking the space and time and care to put it at the forefront.”
The Denver native also expressed appreciation of her opportunity to provide an impactful variation of geographical perspective.
“Most of the voices in the poetry section (of The New York Times Magazine) are coming from the Eastern Seaboard,” she said. “So just by my presence as a voice out of the West, all these things might better connect to the whole country.”
Camille T. Dung
Dungy is professor of creative writing and poetry at CSU. Her poems and essays have appeared in Best American Poetry, Best American Travel Writing, 100 Best African American Poems, nearly 30 other anthologies, plus dozens of print and online venues, including Poetry, American Poetry Review, VQR, Guernica and Poets.org.
Her honors include a 2019 Guggenheim Fellowship, an American Book Award, two Northern California Book Awards, a Colorado Book Award silver medal, two NAACP Image Award nominations, fellowships from the Sustainable Arts Foundation and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts in both prose and poetry.
The Department of English is in CSU’s College of Liberal Arts.