#11 “Notes on the Peanut” (June Jordan)

When I was in elementary school in the 1960s, we didn’t look back to the Civil Rights era during Black History Month – well, we didn’t have Black History Month at all in the schools I went to in Southern Illinois and South Jersey. It was the middle of the Civil Rights Era, and its history was being contested, sometimes right outside of the schools I went to. No, when we looked at the history of African-Americans, we looked at Crispus Attucks, and at Booker T. Washington, and of course, at the most eminent faculty member at Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, the great agronomist and botanist George Washington Carver.

As the linked bio indicates, the most amazing thing we learned about Carver was that he invented 325 different products based on the peanut. (Plus another hundred from the sweet potato. I did not know that.) In fact, I somehow always thought that Carver had invented peanut butter, which would have placed him high in my personal foodie hall of fame, but come to find that “nut-butter” was patented by none other than Kellogg of Battle Creek.

Now, I am as amazed as anyone else by inventions like peanut sausage and peanut linoleum; the list of Carver peanut products behind that link above is every bit as wild and strange as the fictional list created by poet June Jordan in her “Notes on the Peanut” (written in 1980). But as we ritually admired Carver’s ingenuity every year in school, there arose the nagging question: was the entire contribution of black people to American intellectual history located between the halves of a peanut shell? Everywhere else in our history books, we saw only white folks and the occasional Pocahontas or Sacagawea. The one black man we had as a role model was a nutty individual who apparently ran around all day fixing peanut bisque, driving a car powered by peanut diesel.

June Jordan must have shared that suspicion. In her brilliant satiric poem, she pumps tons of hyperbole into Carver’s peanut resumé. She imagines Carver as a lecturer firing up an audience with peanut facts. The absurdity of his inventions mounts, till at some point in the poem it spills over the bounds of parody. We start to see a Carver trapped inside his own peanut universe. The little corner of human endeavor and the natural world that he has been granted by American historians starts to become a grotesque obsession.

The tone of the poem is sharp, unrelenting. Is Jordan laughing at Carver, or with him? At her audience, or with us? When does humor segue into anger, or vice versa? And at what point does stand-up comedy become political?

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20 responses to “#11 “Notes on the Peanut” (June Jordan)

  1. I really enjoyed this poem; I’m not sure if that is because it seems a little silly and over the top, or if it is the way I interpreted it. To me, Carver’s “peanut” seems to be able to symbolize anyone person’s area of specialty; for a doctor their peanut is medicine, a historian’s is history, and an artist’s is painting. It seems as though we all think that this man who invented all of these unthinkable things with peanut butter is sort of silly, but to him, that is what he does.

    I thought it was an interesting thought that white people invented all of these seemingly “important” things, such as the telephone, light bulb, and airplane, but you have this African American man who is subdued and in a field where he invents things with peanuts. This man being in a field that is seemingly peculiar and unimportant, and the speaker’s attitude towards it, bring us to the question of if this poem is in some way reflecting her own brilliance; maybe she too is patronized and no one sees the high level of intelligence that she possesses. The main question however seems to be whether or not she is laughing at him, with him, or at us. I would argue that the poem does reflect her own intelligence, and that Carver was a brilliant man himself, so Jordan is laughing at us, and our ignorance.

  2. I was kind of disappointed that we didn’t cover the poet David Henderson, as mentioned in this poem, in class. After doing my own research, I learned he was a fellow black-movement poet who co-founded “Umbra,” a magazine for black writers’ work. So, I find that this poem by June Jordan was likely written in response to, or for the magazine “Umbra,” or to David Henderson himself, as a stab at showing her work over black history as well. By emphasizing the vast amount and sheer creativity of things Mr. Carver was able to do with peanuts, I think she is just poking fun at his imagination. Nothing within the poem really sounds too mean, in terms of the wording she used. At moments, you can almost sense her laughing at her own work, and even of how she admires him, in a way.

    There was also debate over the fact that he may have been more brilliant than the peanut “allowed” him to be. To me, this seems to not really be the case. Yes, he obviously was very creative, but with what? The peanut. I think, for some strange reason, he was probably very interested in the peanut; why else would he have chosen it to create such bizarre things? Sure, someone could have handed him a block of wood, or some other random material, and asked him to create many unusual devices and gadgets, but I really don’t think he would have been as successful because it wasn’t his real passion. June Jordan’s poem, then, is not really so much the spotlight on a man who has been restrained, but of one who made history by following a strange and oddly useful passion.

  3. In the poem, “Notes on the Peanut,” I feel that June Jordan is laughing with George Washington Carver at the underlying ignorance that fuels racism in society. She is making a mockery not of George Washington Carver but of the perceptions that promote racism. The poem brings to my remembrance conversations between Lionel Jefferson and Archie Bunker on the television show “All in the Family.” Sometimes, Archie’s racial bigotry was so funny until you couldn’t help but laugh at it. Through Jordan’s mockery, she is making a political statement about the treatment of African Americans even when they excel. Although Jordan portrays Carver as a brilliant African American man, she points out that he still had to stay in his proper place. She illustrates this point by using language that suggests inferiority and submission as he shared his ingenious ideas with white society. It reminds me of the language of blackfaces dressed as characters in a minstrel show. She says, “Hi there. My name is George Washington Carver. If you will bear with me for a few minutes I will share with you a few of the 30,117 uses to which the lowly peanut has been put by me since yesterday afternoon.” Another point I think she is trying to make is that history as recorded by white America picks and chooses only a handful of African American inventors to highlight when in actuality there are many. If it was left up to textbooks, a person would think that Martin Luther King Jr. was the only Civil Rights activist, and George Washington Carver was the only African American inventor.

  4. I don’t think that June Jordan is laughing at Carver. I think that maybe she is trying to say something to the effect that an African American can invent things just as well as anyone and he can be as intelligent or even more so than anyone. It doesn’t matter the color of skin it is just the person. I think that the peanut is quite an interesting thing to have invented, even if sounds a little silly when you read the poem. I think that Carver was a highly intelligent person though. To come up with all these thoughts and well, maybe the words he used were to show a little to others, his sheer brilliance. To impress one and maybe even laugh at them for not knowing what some of these words and phrases were such as “polymorphic prehensible skills with the population age sectors.” I can imagine some people looking at him or at one another asking each other what in the world he is talking about! Is it that he was smart or were they just not bright? I also think people thought he might have been a bit strange when he says “Speak right into the peanut! Your name?” I think some people might have thought he was nuts! A bit peanutty! Sorry…couldn’t resist!

  5. In this poem the peanut represents an entire people who were looked down upon, considered small, and were not given the ability to reach their full potential. I believe the peanut is such a small item in our world and that Carver gave it so many uses. I believe he was given this small task and he made it reach it’s full potential. Even though that was all he was known for I believe it was a great contribution because he showed that with something so small he could make a big difference, and maybe that opened the door for many other entrepreneurs. I think Jordan was laughing with him because while others may have thought his work was insignificant it is pretty amazing what he did with just a peanut. I don’t think there is a point where maybe there is more of an angered tone in the poem, a switch from its humor. When I read the poem I felt that Jordan kept a constant humor and satire going which makes the poem very interesting. I really like this poem and the way it was read in class. I can’t help but picture Carver saying all of this himself.

  6. Notes on the Peanut
    When I reread this poem, I thought to myself about some of the things my classmates said about George Washington Carver. “Stephenyn” wrote on the blog that basically we all have certain peanut gifts within us. We can do many different things. She used the example of a peanut being like medicine for a Doctor. It’s not just what George Washington Carver used to make him brilliant. He was able to use something very small and turn it into a variety of things to make it unique and valuable. If the poem was meant for humor, then he had a balance of people supporting him and also some people laughing at him as well. It doesn’t always feel good to be the laughing stock of something you do well. This isn’t very surprising being that he’s black and different and grew up in a segregated time period. No matter who you are, somebody might find something that seems weird or funny about you. But he kept at his gift and he was relentless in the production of his dream. “Jet” also made it a point that African Americans are handpicked in our history books and celebrated only in certain months. I don’t believe that everyone is going to be recognized and more whites are recognized because of the larger impact that they have had on the nation. Yet George Washington Carver was a good pick to be recognized too because he signifies how one person’s gift isn’t any better than the next. That is vital because whites are said to have been better in our history books and that it was better to be poor and white than to be black and poor. Well, the question is why would one race be considered superior to the others? We all have different faces, different problems that support various arguments in society but yet we all have different ambitions.

  7. This poem for me did not have the same meaning as the others. I found that is jumped around to much for me and did not flow very well at all. The peom just did not make much since to me. I understanding the underline of the poem and a man that can be in a field with peanuts and think of all the things that he comes up with, I’m just not sure it made much sense.

  8. This is one of the more odd poems on the countdown, right along with “They Feed They Lion”, though not nearly as confusing. The first part of the poem seems to try to show how amazing George Washington Carver’s work with the peanut actually was, and demonstrates his utility with the peanut. From this point it really does seem like part of June Jordan’s motive was to praise Carver for his brilliance in the scientific field. I did find it interesting that as we listened to the professor recite the poem how harsh you heard the letter p was becoming, not because of the speaker, but it seemed more like a design of the poem. At the beginning it seems almost amusing but as the poem progresses you feel more and more sarcasm soaked into the words, coming out with ever p word. It really seems like June Jordan designed it this way, the mere repetition made to take the amusement out of it and replace it with almost anger. This is the commentary that June Jordan was making, not laughing at Carver or her audience, but scolding society for shoving Carver into such a small accomplishment and then teaching about him in schools, turning him into the token “Peanut Guy”.

  9. I wasn’t sure where I stood on the whole “laughing with his or laughing at him” debate, so I decided to read a biography of June Jordan. After having read some of her other work about racism, I think that this poem isn’t so much making fun of George Washington Carver as it is pointing out that, yes he was a brilliant man, but he was brilliant in the field of peanuts. Of all of the people that young African American children might be given the option to look up to, they’re given the peanut guy? That’s not to say that Carver didn’t do great things, but what he loved was peanuts (and, apparently, sweet potatoes). Are we eating peanut sausage or using peanut soap? No, because now a quarter of the world is apparently allergic to peanuts because of over-exposure. So, brilliant though he may have been, what contribution did Carver make that was so great that an entire ethnic group should base their sense of achievement on it? Of course now that we’ve been through the Civil Rights Era we have people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X to be proud of, but if you really stop and think about it, who was there before then? In all reality, there were African Americans doing great things long before Carver, and some who were doing things at the same time as Carver (Dr. Charles R. Drew invented the concept of the blood bank and the idea for plasma preservation toward the end of Carver’s life, which, if you ask me, is a much greater contribution), so why is Carver the man chosen to represent the achievements of African American people everywhere? Carver is pretty much a household name, and Mr. Drew got a postage stamp with his picture on it in the 1980s. I just don’t get it.

  10. I went to elementary school here in Dallas, Texas for awhile and we often had Black History Month programs where we would learn about african americans. Now during the school year we learned what I called the “norm” black subjects. A little chapter of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and so on. But never got too deep into the history or the people. I honestly didn’t think Black people invented anything when I was younger because we were never taught that. When I moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma it got even worse teachers rarely mentioned black history. As I got older I remember reading about Carver and I used to get embarrassed because I felt it wasn’t an accomplishment working with peanuts. I mean really PEANUTS!!! I know were smart enough to create something better. But I realized you know you have to be some what smart to make inventions out of peanuts. I was however upset that they never taught us about black inventors it made us seem like we were incapable and we were the only race that could not achieve great things. I respect Carver just as I think June does I mean he’s no Lewis Latimer (invented an important part of the light bulb — the carbon filament.) and Otis Boykin invented the electronic control devices for guided missiles, IBM computers, and the pacemaker.) But he proved He to has the brains to create and produce to society. Even the smallest inventions have a huge impact on the world. People like Carver brought the simplest hope to a generation and people who felt inferior. Who were afraid to go beyond what people thought of them of what people labeled them. People like Carver made it okay to show intelligence to the world.

  11. Carvers representation in the poem is apparent, he is portrayed as loony. Point blank. June Jordan had fun with this poem, one can plainly see. It served as the perfect medium through which to create a wonderful poem, full of alliteration and hyperbole. This hyperbole is the most important aspect of the poem. For a race to be only aware of Washington Carver as the “Peanut Guy” is ludicrous. His whole life work is not summed up in his list of what to do with a peanut. His is a prominent figure for the fact that he pioneered many tracks laid a foundation for black people to be a part of school, university, government. This is the crux of the poem. Perhaps, common knoledge of American history only allows enough memory to remember his as a “peanut guy”, which inevitable will evolve as he’s a nut. So June Jordan is laughing at society, not at Carver or black society. Or maybe rather than “making fun of” she is informing. Before this I had no idea who the character in the poem was, Immediately after reading the poem and reflecting on what the author’s purpose might be I read of all the documented achievement of Carver.

  12. I originally assumed that June Jordan was laughing at Carver because of the tone of the text. Jordan exaggerates and over emphasizes Carvers’ analysis of his products, which at first glance seems as if she is making a mockery of him. However, after researching June Jordan I realized that perhaps this poem was just as uplifting as it was funny. Therefore June was laughing with him. In fact Carver would have been pretty impressed with her ability to recall his many creations and turn them into a poetic type of comedy.

  13. “Notes on the Peanut” is a very funny poem but if you look deeper into the poem it appears as if she is laughing at him and not with him. Realistically so many things have been made with peanuts, surely we know not some of the 30,117 that was mentioned. He did invent a lot such as gasoline, paints, dyes, nitroglycerin, and cosmetics. Was this supposed to be a funny poem or was June Jordan just amazed with all the items that were made from peanuts. The poem starts off with “speak right into the peanut your name” is funny to me and make me to believe this is how the whole poem will continue and end. I am really curious to know the inspiration for writing this poem and who is David Henderson. I didn’t know how to take this poem once it was read and discussed in class.

  14. It’s amazing how crazy George Washington Carver was over peanuts. At the same time, it’s also amazing that the peanut has many uses. I’m not sure if all of the objects in the poem are actually real but I can help but think about how different the world would be if we used these things. First of all everything would smell like peanuts. The smell of peanuts isn’t really the most popular aroma so I don’t think that these things would be widely accepted. If these things were used by the public, I’m sure that it wouldn’t be long before they became obsolete. It’s good that everything made from peanuts would be bio-degradable but the cost of production would probably be pretty high and it’s possible that people would have to buy the same product multiple times when you can buy the same product in metal or plastic form and it would last longer.

  15. Jordan used sarcasm to exude how proud of Carver she must have been. In essence, she looked up to him as a well respected inventor of over two hundred products. June Jordan was an African American poet as well as an activist for the equal rights of blacks. She wanted nothing more than to see her people succeed. Carver’s accomplishments brought out the best in Jordan’s poetry and inspired her to write about someone she was proud of.

  16. andreamcginley

    I really enjoyed this poem, partly because it was a little silly and a nice change of tone in the recent poems that we’ve had. But mainly because when reading this poem it felt like the speaker was not really making fun of George Washington Carver or laughing with him it seemed to say that anyone can create something that will change the world. The word peanut seemed to be the ‘insert your name here’ part of an application. It was associated with things that have and could be created by anyone who dreamed it possible. My favorite part of the poem is when the speaker says that there is “30,117 uses to which
    the lowly peanut” As we know from history Carver only had 352, but the fact that this number was multiplied by a large magnitude just left it to be that there is this vast amount of ideas to be discovered by genius people who take the time to think of what materials can be used for what. Carver’s discoveries was not only a great stepping stone for all of African Americans, but to the human kind it just showed that even with the smallest amount of materials something awesome can be made. This poem was very inspirational to me.

  17. When I read the poem, I get a somewhat comical image of a scientist working in some lab, with all kinds of experiments going on simultaneously, like something that would fit in as a scene in the movie “The Absent Minded Professor,” or something along those lines. The way the poem was read aloud in class only reinforced that image. I also get the impression that the author of the poem is both laughing with and at George Washington Carver. They are probably in awe of all the things that were actually derived from something so seemingly insignificant. Yet, based on the fictional inventions mentioned in the poem I get the impression that the author is really trying to say, “It’s just a peanut…does anyone actually care?”

  18. I really enjoyed this poem because it has a deeper meaning than just a man inventing things from peanuts. I do agree with my peers that this poem emphasizes the racism that was present at that time. At that period of time Africa Americans were not viewed as people that could actually contribute anything towards society or even have the capability of coming up with an invention. Like the professor said, in the school textbooks only white man appeared and all their inventions (telephone, electricity, etc.) but no African Americans except for Carver and his inventions from peanuts. Maybe that was left there just to show everybody all the great white men inventions and look at the only contribution that African Americans give. The tone of the poem is very sarcastic and over the top, but I think that Jordan did not have anger in her tone. I can also sense that she was laughing with him because with her over exaggeration of the inventions, she is trying to show others that yes Carver only invented things from peanuts, but look at all the things that he could come up with by just using that. It shows the immense capability that everybody has and maybe if he had had a chance he would have come up with other great inventions.

  19. I didn’t like this poem as i did the rest of the poems that we read in class.If there was some type of symbolism I didn’t catch it. I understand that it had to do with African Americans and all but didn’t see much sense of it. The word peanut was exhusted though out the poem. It is a good example of a poem that doesn’t rhyme and is just out there. A point was made and then they ran with it. No other points followed. I didn’t see that much creativity in it. I guess it flew over me. It was just not my type of poem.

  20. I found the poem “Notes on the Peanut” to be quite entertaining. The poem was fun to read and had a comical sense to it. Whether or not politics are involved with it is debatable, I can see it from both angles. Instead of questioning how unimportant the peanut was, I try and take the position of realizing at that time in American history black people were treated far from how they are today. So with that in mind, the fact that Dr. Carver was still a prominent figure, no matter what the reason, speaks volumes of who he was. During Dr. Carver’s time black people had not yet risen to prominence or to equality with the white community. The fault of this is entirely upon whites and how they treated black people. So the fact that Dr. Carver was one of the few black people recognized during that time frame doesn’t mean black people did not have the potential to do bigger and better things. It just means that the resources to do these things had not been bestowed upon them yet.

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