Barbara Jane Reyes is the author of Diwata (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2010), recently noted as a finalist for the California Book Award. She was born in Manila, Philippines, raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, and is the author of two previous collections of poetry, Gravities of Center (Arkipelago Books, 2003) and Poeta en San Francisco (Tinfish Press, 2005), which received the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets. She is co-editor with her husband, poet Oscar Bermeo, of Doveglion Press, and an adjunct professor in Philippine Studies at University of San Francisco.
For APIA Heritage Month 2011, we are revisiting our Process Profile series, in which contemporary Asian American poets discuss their craft, focusing on their process for a single poem from inception to publication. This year, we’ve been asking several Lantern Review contributors whose work gestures back toward history or legacy to discuss their process for composing a poem of theirs that we’ve published. In this installment, Barbara Jane Reyes discusses her piece “13. Black Jesus” [an excerpt of her longer project “The City That Nearly Broke Me”], which appeared in Issue 1 of Lantern Review.
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I love my Black Jesus persona.
He emerged in my “For the City That Nearly Broke Me” series, which I started writing after this prompt: “Write about the city that saved you. Write about one that nearly broke you.” Rachelle Cruz posted this prompt on her blog while she was a PEN Emerging Voices fellow.
I’ve never excavated Manila, my birthplace; it eludes my understanding, it’s always spitting me out. That’s how I see it, and so I wanted to find a thwart-proof way in.
There is a general disdain Filipinos have for dark skin; we claim those precious few drops of Spanish blood. In this desire for whiteness, it’s ignored that much Spanish blood entered the Filipino via colonial rape.
The term “Buffalo Solider” has been around since the 1860’s, and refers to US cavalry and infantry regiments of African American soldiers. There are legends about the term’s origin, but I can’t get over the historical significance of African American men as animals. Moreover, these Buffalo Soldiers fought against Native Americans in the “Indian Wars,” and against the Filipinos in the Philippine American War. People of color pitted against one another in America’s formative wars of conquest. Some defected from the US military, became Katipunan/Philippine freedom fighters, as “posters and leaflets addressed to ‘The Colored American Soldier’ described the lynching and discrimination against Blacks in the US and discouraged them from being the instrument of their white masters’ ambitions to oppress another ‘people of color’.”
And of course, “Buffalo Soldier” is a Bob Marley song, whose form the poem borrows. It’s a narrative of transnational displacement, an anthem of survival and resistance:
And he was taken from Africa,
brought to America.
Fighting on arrival, fighting for survival.
Say it was a buffalo soldier, dreadlock rasta.
Buffalo soldier, in the heart of America.
It’s all of these displacements and reorientations that have allowed me to start the excavation.
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Excerpt from “13. Black Jesus”
After Bob Marley
The indio who carved me knew the drum and the heart are one.
He knew the song for hunting, the waiting song, the calling song.
He knew the song for planting, the song of earth’s open hand.
He knew the song for walking, the river water song.
Buffalo Soldier, Carabao Brother,
Stolen from the Americas, brought to the islands,
Sharpening machete, crouching in the jungle,
Born into slavery, son of revolution.